Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Why they don't read the bill - it's not a bug, but a feature

Politico explains why legislators don't read the bill. It's too dang hard.
But reading actual legislative text is often the least productive way to learn what’s actually in a bill.

Consider the House health care bill (or bills, as it were). The 1,017-page text is a tangle of references to other clauses, sections and subsections of the bill as well as numerous other statutes — some passed ages ago, all a pain to locate and search, even online: “Section 1179 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1320d-8) is amended” by striking this and inserting that, or “the tax imposed under this section shall not be treated as a tax imposed by this chapter for the purposes of determining the amount of any credit under this chapter or for the purposes of section 55.”

Got that?

“These bills are not written for even the educated layperson. They are written for specialists,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers.

Even legislative staffers who deal with an issue every day can miss or fail to grasp the consequence of small turns of legislative language. “The legislative process is made up of people who are artisans at being able to craft language that looks innocuous” but isn’t, said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who spent more than three decades as a high-level staffer on Capitol Hill.
Of course, this is deliberate.

The solution is to write bills that even legislators can understand. As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time going through primary documents to edit them down for students to read. You won't see bills like that gobbledygook even in 50 or 60 years ago. For example, look at the original 1935 Social Security Act. It is comprehensible. This incoherence is a relatively new phenomenon. As interest groups and legislative staffs have grown, the abstruseness of today's bills has grown. Now every group that wants something can hook up with a congressman and get it inserted by some staffer and only some other interest group connected to some other staffer can find it and figure out what it refers to and what is going on. They they tell their poor schlubs of congressmen how to vote.

As Politico makes clear, this isn't a partisan sin; both parties are guilty and have done the same thing. They push through some huge bill in some god-awful hurry and then we find out later what is in the thing.
There’s a whole advisory and consultative system built into the legislative process designed to help members understand legislation, said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution.

Lawmakers, committees and caucus leaders all employ staffs of legislative and policy experts to brief members and write plain-English summaries. There are also specialized departments, such as the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office, that offer a variety of nonpartisan, expert services. Plus, a slew of think tanks and advocacy groups provide their own analyses.

Rather than asking if lawmakers are reading bills, Mann said, “the more critical questions are: Is someone reading it? Is it available in a timely way, [or] are things being written at the last minute, in the dark, with no one really aware of what’s been included?”

In other words, the advisory process needs time to work.
That's fine for the situation we have now. But wouldn't a better solution be to write smaller bills that don't attempt to do everything at one full swoop and to write it more clearly? We elect these guys, and I don't find it all that comforting to know that there are all sorts of unelected staff who are reading the things. What that means is that we can vote someone out, but the staff, like Celine Dion's heart, will go on. We have no way of ousting them. And they're the ones writing the bills, explaining the bill, and advising the legislators whether or not to approve the bill. And the public has no voice in the matter because it's the staff that does all the work. And they don't mind the incomprehensible language. For the staff, it's a guarantee for their continued employment. As far as the staff is concerned, gobbledygook is not a bug, it's a feature.