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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Should Congress actually read the laws it imposes on us?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, the best legal blog in the country, David Post weighs into the question of whether Members of Congress should actually read the bills before they vote on them.
I'm not a fool - I know full well that not a single member of Congress read every word of, say, the 1,427-page Waxman-Markley energy bill. But I think we give up something valuable if we accept that as acceptable behavior. I guess it didn't occur to the editorialists at the Post that if members of Congress actually tried to live up to this most basic obligation, that 1,427-page long bills would no longer be introduced, which would surely, all other things being equal, be a good thing for the Republic.
The Washington Post argues that such a requirement is impractical.
They have a point. But their proposal would bring government to a standstill.

The average college graduate reads about 300 words per minute. Assume that there are about 150 words per page of legislative text, a number we derived from counting the words on a few randomly chosen pages from the Waxman-Markey energy bill. To read all 1,427 pages of Waxman-Markey, it would take at least 12 hours -- tough on a tight legislative timeline. And that assumes that lawmakers can read complex bills at the same pace they do a John Grisham novel (we tried -- it's not even close).
A few suggestions to get around this problem, and give Members of Congress some free time to do all the amendment drafting and constituent service they are allegedly doing now.
  1. Shorter bills
  2. Fewer bills
  3. Have Members of Congress disclose which bills they read themselves, and on which they rely on summaries and staff memos.

I don't think it's unreasonable for someone to support or oppose legislation based on a well-written summary. I've written them. But Congress has started making bills overly long and complex in order to make it harder for the public to know what's in them. Perhaps requiring Congress to read the bills will force Congress to write bills short enough to read.

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