Read the Bill – A Response to Orin:

I won’t speak for David, but as I’ve also blogged in support of the idea that legislators have an obligation to read legislation before they vote on it, I’ll answer Orin’s questions.

1. I believe no legislator should vote in favor of substantive legislation that he or she has not read or does not understand. If such a bill comes to a vote, the legislator should abstain or vote against the bill. Why is it okay to vote against the bill and not for it? Because a legislator should not act to alter or impose legal rights or obligations without understanding the changes in legal rights or obligations that he or she is imposing. A vote against legislation is a vote to preserve the status quo, and by voting against legislation a legislator is not altering anyone’s rights or obligations. [Note: This does suggest a status quo bias, more than a libertarian one, as I think this principle should apply whether a law would increase or decrease the scope of government.]

2. Where legislation is a string of amendments to existing laws, a legislator should read what is necessary to understand the legislation. This probably requires reading the bill and, if the bill is unintelligible when read in isolation, some sort of before/after comparison of every provision of the U.S. Code that would be revised.

3. If a legislator does not believe he or she can ever vote in favor of legislation that contains a certain type of provision — a tax increase, a provision supporting or limiting abortion, or whatever — it would certainly be sufficient to stop reading once a legislator has reached an objectionable provision. As noted above, I also think it is reasonable for a legislator to vote against any and all legislation that he or she has not had the opportunity to read.

4. I would not excuse particularly popular legislation. If legislation is that popular, a delay of a day or two won’t prevent its passage. I suppose there is an argument for excusing the failure to read lengthy legislation in emergency circumstances. On the other hand, if the nature of the emergency and length of the bill are such that a legislator does not have time to read the bill I would be quite suspicious about the wisdom of the legislation if for no other reason than if there’s not time to read the bill, how could there have been time to draft a coherent and effective piece of legislation?

5. Since I think the legislators primary obligation is to read and understand substantive legislation before voting in favor of it, I don’t think the standard applies to procedural votes. It would make sense, however, for a legislator to vote against ending debate before having read the bill, as this would provide time for legislators to read the bill.

6. Yes. Even though I would like to see the size and scope of the federal government shrunk dramatically, I think the legislators obligation is to read and understand that which he or she would legislate — that is, that which he would do to alter existing legal rights or obligations — so I would apply it to measures that would shrink the government as well.

Would my approach make it more difficult to enact legislation? Probably. Would it make it more difficult to pass widely supported or particularly important legislation? I doubt it. After all, if legislation is that good or that popular (even if not both), it should be able to withstand this requirement.

One final note: Of course this requirement is not enforceable. In an ideal world, legislators would recognize that reading and understanding legislation before they vote for it is a part and parcel of their obligation as legislators, and voters would not reelect those legislators that cannot or will not fulfill this obligation. I am under no illusion that this will actually happen, but it is a principle worth supporting nonetheless.

UPDATE: A question frequently asked of us “read the bill” types is “Why should legislators have to read the bills when they have staff? Isn’t that what staff is for?” Not really. It is certainly appropriate for legislators to rely upon staff to draft legislation, review legislative proposals, and serve as a filter identifying bills that might be worthy of support, and so on.. Indeed, legislators could not do their jobs without such assistance. But this does not relieve legislators of reading those pieces of legislation that seek to enact.

Think of the legislator like a senior partner. It’s perfectly appropriate for the senior partner to rely upon associates to conduct research, draft documents, review documents, and so on. But if the partner is going to sign his or her name to a legal brief, he or she better have read it. It is simply inappropriate for the partner to simply sign a document or brief on an associate’s say-so. By the same token, when the legislator is prepared to enact legislation, he or she should have read the bill.