“I’m still floored that it’s controversial or debatable to say that politicians should read and understand bills before voting them into law.”
That quote, from a tweet by Washington Post writer Radley Balko, might provoke sympathetic nods of agreement or sneers of derision from Americans familiar with D.C. politics. But sadly, he’s right. It is controversial—and has been for at least a decade. In fact, you are more likely to hear people make the argument that they shouldn’t waste their time reading the bills they vote on.
A prime example is an article Slate political correspondent John Dickerson wrote in 2009. The subhead of Dickerson’s piece says it all: “The case for not reading the legislation you’re voting on.” The gist of his rationale—which is shared by many people in the legislative branch—can be boiled down to these five points:
1. Many bills are written in “conceptual language”—also known as plain English—because sometimes “the legislative language doesn’t yet exist: There are 500-plus amendments to the [health care bill] and they aren’t yet in final form.”
2. The bills are often written in “plain English because the issues it is talking about are complicated and technical.”
3. “Just because lawmakers read legislation doesn’t mean they understand it. The reverse is also true: Just because they understand it doesn’t mean they’ve read it.”
4. “Drafting and reading legislative language is an art form. Staffers who know how to read it and write it are hired to translate the language.”
5. “ . . . members of Congress have a hard enough time knowing where they stand on the big things.”
There is simply no justification for #1 and #2. If a bill is “complicated and technical” then it should contain both “conceptual language” and legislative language within the same document at the time it is being voted on. Legislators should be voting on actual legislation not on a generic outline in which the details can be filled in later. Too much of importance can be “lost in translation.”
Likewise, points #3-5 are ridiculous. If a lawmaker has not read and/or understood a piece of legislation then they have no business voting on its contents. The idea that they can truly “know what’s in it” without reading the text is absurd. Nuances in language can have a significant impact on how the executive branch and the courts interpret the legislator’s “intent.” How can government administrators and judges determine the intent of lawmakers by reading the language of a law when the legislator’s themselves don’t even know what language was used?
As we learned in civics class, one of the primary tasks of a legislator is to make laws. Laws are made of language, which means that “making laws” requires the minimal skill of being able to read and comprehend the language used. If a legislator is not able to fulfill that task then they are incompetent and should resign or be removed from office. If their staffers are the only ones who have the capabilities to understand the issues then they are the ones that we should be electing to Congress.
Dickerson says, “I am also not making an argument for stupidity or laziness. Just because a member of Congress hasn’t read a bill doesn’t mean he is excused from knowing what’s in the bill.” But they don’t know what is in a bill unless they’ve read it for themselves. A second-hand summation by a staffer is simply inadequate for the purposes of creating a law. It is perverse that we are expected to hole our elected officials to such a low standard.
Would we find this acceptable in other areas of the legal process? Imagine if you hired a high-priced attorney to represent you in a life-altering legal matter. As you head to the courthouse the attorney informs you that though he isn’t actually familiar with the relevant laws in your case—indeed he’s not really competent to understand such issues—he’s had a sharp young paralegal read up on it and give him a verbal briefing. How confident would you be after hearing that you’re life depended on how well a low-level staffer was able to convey complex, technical information to their boss?
Legislators should be expected to read and comprehend every significant piece of legislation in which they cast a vote. I don’t care how much he may be “informed by other kinds of reading—expert testimony, academic journals, and even news articles . . . ” The judicial branch is not going to reference an article by the New York Times when they determine how to interpret a law. They will look at the text of the legislation (which the judges themselves will have read).
If staffers, judges—even lobbyists—can find the time to read legislation, why can’t legislators?