Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”     H. L. Mencken

March 13, 2007

No Legislation without Representation!

by Stephen Littau

Have you ever seen a congressman being cornered by an angry constituent who asks why he or she voted for a particular bill? How many times have you heard a congressperson in this situation explain that he or she was unaware of a certain provision in a bill he or she supported? Is it possible that the congressperson did not read the bill before casting his or her vote?

Though I believe Michael Moore to be a lying Socialist propagandist, in one scene in his Fahrenheit 9/11 he made a great point (even a broken clock is right twice a day). Moore was driving an ice cream truck around the D.C. mall reading the U.S.A Patriot Act over a loudspeaker. The point he was trying to make was that almost no one in the congress had taken the time to read the bill and were likely hearing the contents of the bill for the first time. Regardless of how one feels about the U.S.A Patriot Act, is it not a little unsettling that our representatives in congress voted on a bill without first reading it?

The fact that most of the representatives failed to read the U.S.A Patriot Act is hardly unusual. Judging by the size of some of these bills, some which rival the thickness of The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, it’s no wonder why most legislators only read a summary of the bill’s main points (if that). Because there are so many cumbersome bills in various stages of the legislative process at any given time, it is not unusual for a representative’s constituents to be better informed than he or she is on a particular bill. As a result, the people of this country are in many respects, unrepresented in congress.

Unlike most problems, this solution seems quite obvious: require every congressperson to read a bill in its entirety before casting a vote. Believe it or not, such a bill has been proposed. An organization dedicated to limited government causes by the name of Downsize D.C. is behind a bill called the “Read the Bills Act” (RTBA). The organization believes the bill will result in smaller bills, more open and honest debate, slow the growth of government, and would end the practice known as “logrolling” (sneaking in unpopular proposals into an otherwise popular bill).

The RTBA would require every bill with every amendment to be read aloud before both the House and the Senate. Each congressperson would be required to sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury stating that he or she has had either read the entire bill or had the entire bill read to him or her before casting a vote. Any bills with sunset provisions which are up for renewal would also be subject to the above provisions of the RTBA. Additionally (a provision that I particularly like) each bill would be required to be posted on the internet seven days before the vote and congress would be required to inform the public of the date of the vote. Any bill that fails to conform to these rules would be considered null and void and would be grounds to challenge the law in court, therefore; congress could not waive the requirements under the RTBA.

So far, I only see one problem with the RTBA: the clerk from each house would read the bill. Arizona has a RTBA (of sorts) where the bill is read by a speed reader. The person reading the bill reads it too fast for most people to understand (much like the disclaimers at the end of some radio ads). What would stop the House and the Senate from using a similar practice? I would suggest that instead of having the clerks read the bills, either the bill’s sponsors, or the leaders in each legislative body (Speaker of the House in the House; the Vice President in the Senate) should read the bills.

Requiring our legislators to do their jobs (read their own bills) should not be too much to ask. No more legislation without representation!

Draft of the RTBA

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  1. Hmmm. Too bad it’s not called the RTFB Act.

    (Non-techies can search on the acronym RTFM).

    Comment by Steve S. — March 13, 2007 @ 2:29 pm
  2. I think the “F” is implied Steve :)

    Comment by Stephen Littau — March 13, 2007 @ 2:34 pm
  3. I hope this bill becomes law. Haha “RTFB”

    Comment by uhm — March 13, 2007 @ 2:41 pm
  4. I’m not sure how you enforce it. Congressmen can decide to be absent during the reading with no consequence plus they can sign the affidavit and still not read the bill and there’s no way we can prove that they didn’t.

    Comment by Kevin — March 13, 2007 @ 2:47 pm
  5. College students can skip reading assignments with no consequences either… unless the the professor has a quiz or calls on them in class the next day.

    We enforce it the same way teachers enforce the reading they assign their students. Students assume they will be held responsible for not knowing it.

    Sure, we can’t formally test politicians like students. However, politicians would know that if they were ever asked about why they supported a particular provision in a bill, they wouldn’t be able to claim they were unaware of it.

    Comment by — March 13, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

    We enforce it the same way teachers enforce the reading they assign their students. Students assume they will be held responsible for not knowing it.

    Sure, we can’t formally test politicians like students. However, politicians would know that if they were ever asked about why they supported a particular provision in a bill, they wouldn’t be able to claim they were unaware of it.

    One would hope that the electorate would already hold politicians accountable who don’t read the bills without a law. How would this unenforceable law make that different?

    Comment by Kevin — March 13, 2007 @ 5:12 pm
  7. I’ll concede the electorate is far too apathetic.

    So what? The best part of the RTBA is it’s potential to slow Congress down… even if just for long enough to read an entire bill, collect all the affidavits, and move to a vote.

    And even if this only marginally slows Congress, it also adds incentive to write shorter, less cryptic bills.

    Lastly, let an irresponsible member of Congress lie on an affidavit. It just makes for that much more evidence for a challenger to take advantage of.

    Comment by — March 13, 2007 @ 8:22 pm
  8. Kevin asks how the “Read the Bills Act” would be enforced? The bill contains a provision rendering any legislation passed in violation of the Act void for enforcement in the nation’s courts. Penalties for perjury would also apply to any member of Congress who votes to pass any legislation that he or she has not read.

    As for the electorate holding politicians accountable for not reading the bills they pass, there are a whole host of reasons (owing in part to election laws, and explained in part by public choice theory and game theory) why the electoral remedy has been rendered null and void for all practical purposes. Real change at the ballot box is simply no longer possible. This is why we are pursuing a strategy of applying relentless, inescapable, mind-numbing pressure on Congress to change its behavior.

    Perry Willis
    Communications Director, Inc.

    Comment by Perry Willis — March 13, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

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