« A Moment of Nerdery | Main | An Observation »

Read The Laws!

A little while back, there was some loose talk about how congressmen and senators should read the laws before they vote on them. Well, I've just been reading a bill (from 1994, passed the House, died in the Senate, significant portions of the language passed both houses in 1996 as part of a big legislative package) and I can tell you . . . this is never going to happen. You would need to pay me truly unimaginable quantities of money to get me to read all 43 of the pages I have in front of me. To do something like that regularly? No way. There's not enough anything in the world. Here's a taste:

Section 224 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 USC 244) is amended --
(1) in subsection (a)(4) by inserting after 'system' the following: 'or a provider of telecommunications service';

(2) in subsection (c)(2)(V), by striking 'cable television servies' and inserting 'the services offered via such attachments';

(3)by redesignating subsection (d)(2) as subsection (d)(4); and

(4) by striking subsection (d)(1) and inserting the following:

'(d)(1) For purposes of subsection (b) of this section, the Commission shall, no later than 1 year after the date of enactment of the National Communications Competition and Information Infrastruction Act f 1994, prescribe regulations for ensuring that utilities charge just and reasonable and nondiscriminatory rates for pole attachments provided to all providers of telecommunications services, including such attachments used by cable television systems to provide telecommunications services (as defined in section 3(mm) of this Act). Such regulations shall--
Well, let's just say it goes on for quite a while about this. I'm told the point was to empower the FCC to regulate the rates that owners of telephone poles could charge other people for the right to put their shit up on the old poles so that we weren't forced to choose between no competition and a proliferation of unsightly telephone poles all over the place.

May 20, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d83458a9e169e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Read The Laws!:

» Don't Read the Bills from Fester's Place
However, if one believes in the potentiality of good governance, this is a horrendous idea. [Read More]

Tracked on May 23, 2005 8:11:38 AM

Comments

I enjoy reading bills. There is one before the Senate now that will shut the Wyoming National Guard's training ground so Haliburton can mine it for $1.

It's amazing what congress can hide from "journalists" these days cause they don't want to read the "boring" details...

Posted by: monkyboy | May 20, 2005 6:07:08 PM

I told you exactly this when you endorsed the suggestion in the first place. Not only is it terribly boring, you get no sense of what it's doing anyway.

Posted by: Ugh | May 20, 2005 6:12:29 PM

When people suggest that they actually read the Bill, they don't (if they know whereof they speak) mean the actual Bill, they mean the conference committee report (sort of a detailed executive summary of the bill).

Posted by: Brautigan | May 20, 2005 6:16:24 PM

2 things. 1st, this is one of the reasons why they hire staff -- to read the draft laws.

2nd, "You would need to pay me truly unimaginable quantities of money to get me to read all 43 of the pages I have in front of me" -- that's why good lawyers do in fact get paid "truly unimaginable quantities of money." All else equal, the more boring the job the better the pay.

Posted by: ostap | May 20, 2005 6:16:57 PM

That's why it's a great idea. If congressmen had to read the bills they voted on, perhaps they could write (or hire people to write) shorter, clearer laws. Better yet, perhaps they'd pass fewer of them.

Posted by: Steve | May 20, 2005 6:27:15 PM

It seems like all the striking business could be handled using a decent document versioning system. Apart from that, it's probably no worse than reading software requirements documents.

Posted by: PaulC | May 20, 2005 6:39:55 PM

You would need to pay me truly unimaginable quantities of money to get me to read all 43 of the pages I have in front of me. To do something like that regularly? No way.

A job for Chet, perhaps?

[If] you promise them a boatload of money to complete some dull, but difficult task, they'd probably do it very well while a more intellectual person might well decide that it was dull and spend their time doing something they find interesting.

Posted by: Rebecca | May 20, 2005 6:40:38 PM

Seems to be the same in every democracy, translated legislative texts read the same here in Germany. Maybe you could keep track with a sophisitcated database, but I doubt it.
Lawmakers should be forced to publish the whole test if laws are altered.
Who knows what incredible hooks may be hidden under phrases like "(22) in article II, section 1, clause 5, by striking 'a natural born Citizen, or'"?
Maybe some day you'll be surprised when governed by the Presidentator.

Posted by: Gray | May 20, 2005 6:44:43 PM

Brautigan is right: read the conference report.

Posted by: alkali | May 20, 2005 6:47:46 PM

It seems like all the striking business could be handled using a decent document versioning system.

And, although I've never worked on the Hill, I guarantee you this is what they do. Then you'll see the full text of the law, as amended, with deleted text marked by (say) strikethrough and added text marked by (say) itals. It doesn't make any sense to read the bill in the way that Matthew is doing it, and I doubt anyone really ever does, because it is just too hard.

Posted by: Al | May 20, 2005 6:52:10 PM

Maybe you could keep track with a sophisitcated database, but I doubt it.

I don't know if you really need this, but a list of instructions to strike one passage and insert another (an "edit script" in computer science terms) is clearly a big stumbling block. Considering that these changes can be applied mechanically, there ought to be a final document made by applying them. This is the document I would expect somebody to read. You said something similar, so I don't think we're in disagreement.

Posted by: PaulC | May 20, 2005 6:53:55 PM

Yup, I thought about automating it. When all the edit instructions are in the text, it should be possible.

Posted by: Gray | May 20, 2005 7:02:13 PM

As far as the complexity of document versioning, simple "track changes" notation, a la MS-Word, would be a dramatically more effective way to present the data. Somebody should enact a law to make it so.

As to the boring nature of the bills themselves: "Apart from that, it's probably no worse than reading software requirements documents."

I have trouble thinking of anything worse than reading software requirements documentation.

Posted by: bobo brooks | May 20, 2005 7:02:55 PM

Al, do we have to take your word that congressmen and senators have access to this version system? Would be more reassuring if you would produce some links to sources. From what I read in the MSM about staffers working several days to find the pork, I doubt your information.

Posted by: Gray | May 20, 2005 7:06:05 PM

When will Google release the "pork finder" upgrade to desktop search?

Posted by: PaulC | May 20, 2005 7:08:56 PM

'I have trouble thinking of anything worse than reading software requirements documentation.'
I'm working in the IT business and I have never seen phrases like "(1) in subsection (a)(4) by inserting before 'processor' the following: 'double core';" in software requirements documentations.

Posted by: Gray | May 20, 2005 7:10:15 PM

I have never seen phrases like "(1) in subsection (a)(4) by inserting before 'processor' the following: 'double core';" in software requirements documentations.

Maybe not, but in requirements docs, one must account for numerous if/then situations which are much more complex than the single instruction you quote above. This added complexity does not--at least not to me--add to the interest in reading or writing them. That's why they have to pay people so much to do so.

Posted by: bobo brooks | May 20, 2005 7:15:10 PM

'That's why they have to pay people so much to do so.'
If only it were so...sigh...

Posted by: Gray | May 20, 2005 7:35:50 PM

This also shows the stupidity of textualism as an exclusive approach to judicial statuatory iterpretation.

Posted by: yoyo | May 20, 2005 7:41:38 PM

This is a place where the web can step in, by providing cross references to these one-word substitutions. Damn, there's already that kind of thing in place to show 'diffs' of source code, so why not adapt it to laws?

Democracy-hackers in the UK have turned Hansard into a user-friendly, commentable site. It's time for Americans to do the same with legislation.

Posted by: ahem | May 20, 2005 8:19:12 PM

We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.--Winston Churchill

SOCIAL SECURITY:

Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, introduced the Social Security (FICA) Program. He promised:

1.) That participation in the Program would be completely voluntary,

2.) That the participants would only have to pay 1% of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the Program,

3.) That the money the participants elected to put into the Program would be deductible from their income for tax purposes each year,

4.) That the money the participants put into the independent "Trust Fund" rather than into the General operating fund, and therefore, would only be used to fund the Social Security Retirement Program, and no other Government program, and,

5.) That the annuity payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income.

Since many of us have paid into FICA for years and are now receiving a Social Security check every month -- and then finding that we are getting taxed on 85% of the money we paid to the Federal government to "put away," you may be interested in the following:

Q: Which Political Party took Social Security from the independent "Trust" fund and put it into the General fund so that Congress could spend it?

A: It was Lyndon Johnson and the Democratically-controlled House and Senate.

Q: Which Political Party eliminated the income tax deduction for Social Security (FICA) withholding?

A: The Democratic Party.

Q: Which Political Party started taxing Social Security annuities?

A: The Democratic Party, with Al Gore casting the "tie-breaking" deciding vote as President of the Senate, while he was Vice President of the U.S.

Q: Which Political Party decided to start giving annuity payments to immigrants?

MY FAVORITE:

A: That's right! Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party. Immigrants moved into this country, and at age 65, began to receive SSI Social Security payments! The Democratic Party gave these payments to them, even though they never paid a dime into it!

Then, after doing all this lying and thieving and violation of the original contract (FICA), the Democrats turn around and tell you that the Republicans want to take your Social Security away!


Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often

Posted by: jim | May 20, 2005 10:55:20 PM

Al, do we have to take your word that congressmen and senators have access to this version system?

As I said, I have no first hand knowledge. My speculation is based on the fact that virtually every single large law firm in the entire country has a system like the one I described. So I figured some of the lawyers in the federal government might want to use it too.

Posted by: Al | May 20, 2005 11:13:51 PM

Gray, take for example this legislation. (I have no idea what it is - some random legislation from the House Science Comittee; it came from a google search.)

If you look at the end, there are two "Attachments". The first attachment is the wordy legislation of the same type that Matthew described - i.e., it says some subsection of some law "is amended by striking the last sentence" or another subsection "is amended to read as follows: ..."

The second attachment, however, is exactly what I'm talking about: it presents the entire law, as amended, showing which provisions have been deleted (these are denoted by strikethrough text) and which provisions have been added (denoted by itals). The unchanged part of the law is in normal type.

It would shock me if this wasn't done for every single piece of legislation - you have both the textual description as well as the marked version.

Posted by: Al | May 20, 2005 11:27:10 PM

Honestly, bills have tables of contents. The longest bills will often have indeces. It really isn't that hard, but I recently graduated law school, so maybe I'm used to it. But seriously, doing what Matt is doing is kind of like reading a page out of the middle of a novel with the spacing removed. It isn't what anyone actually does, and it doesn't make sense to do it. Elected representatives are frequently lawyers, who have no problem sifting through the junk.

Posted by: blogsy mcblog | May 20, 2005 11:31:34 PM

A good rule of thumb is that most bills try to accomplish exactly the opposite of their title...

Posted by: monkyboy | May 20, 2005 11:55:47 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.