Should legislators read bills?

I have read with dismay David and Jonathan’s arguments that all legislators should read all bills before voting. The argument fits a genre of populist rhetoric that claims that problems of governance can be solved with simple, common-sense rules, denying that political institutions are highly complex organizations that have evolved in response to needs and pressures, and that simple-sounding rules rarely do any good in complex settings. Here, we should keep in mind that the ultimate function of the legislature is to produce good law; that determining whether a particular law is good or bad is such a complex and subtle task that all legislatures have found it necessary to divide labor, form committees, hire staff, expect particular legislators to become experts and leaders in particular domains, and, indeed, delegate many functions to unelected expert regulators. This means that, for virtually any law, only a handful of people can possibly have a sophisticated understanding of the bill in question. It’s not a matter of reading the bill or not; it’s a matter of knowing about the problems that the bill hopes to solve. You can read the Bankruptcy Code from start to finish and even if you have an IQ of 200, you won’t understand it unless you also know how courts interpret the Code, how businesses respond to it, how state governments work around it, how regulators like the IRS use it, how it affects the incentives of individuals and firms, the meaning of moral hazard, something about risk aversion, how credit markets work, and on and on. I would say a half hour conversation with a credible expert would be vastly more useful than reading the Code, and if you say the legislators should talk to the expert and read the Code, you need also to believe that reading the Code will add to understanding and the legislator has nothing better to do with his time (for example, consult another expert with a different background, or consult an expert about another bill). I don’t believe that in any sophisticated private firm operating in a market one would ever see serious discussion along these lines: delegation to trusted subordinates is the essence of organization in complex settings, and people are evaluated on the basis of outcomes (profits, in the case of firms; the quality of the legislation they voted for, in the case of legislators), not on their conformity with simple-minded rules of behavior.

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