Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Read The Bills Act

Jim Babka, host of the radio show on which I was a frequent guest, is also the co-founder and president of the DownsizeDC Foundation (along with Perry Willis, a frequent commenter here, and Harry Browne, former libertarian candidate for President). DownsizeDC is currently working to pass a law called the Read The Bills Act, which would require legislators to have read every page of every bill before a vote is taken in the House and Senate. I think this is a great idea.

DownsizeDC points out that Congress often passes mammoth bills running thousands of pages when there isn’t even a final printed text available before it’s voted on, that they often hide unpopular items deep in the middle of a much larger bill that is popular and even necessary to keep the government running, and that many items are deleted and added in secret. The solution: require that the bill be read outloud in front of a quorum of both houses of Congress before a vote can be held and require that every member of the Congress sign an affidavit saying that they have read, or heard read, every item in the bill.

I suggested to Jim yesterday that, solely for the purpose of maximum irony, they should have a legislator insert this provision into the back of a defense appropriations bill where no one will notice it. In reallty, however, we must put pressure on our legislators to pass this bill. I urge you all to click here and add your voice. Let’s flood the Congress with letters and emails calling on them to pass it and to stop playing games with our tax dollars.


  1. #1 Raging Bee
    February 16, 2006

    Yes, but will they read the letters?

    More seriously, there is a procedure that used to be known as “withholding,” whereby a chief executive could stall the actual spending of money for a certain program, and force the lege to take an up-or-down vote on that item on its own merits.

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    February 16, 2006

    The two things I like best about this idea are that 1) bills would become much simpler and shorter because let’s face it, when you start cutting into cocktail hour the politicians will have to take action and 2) it will slow down the Congress greatly. And I’m all for that.

  3. #3 llDayo
    February 16, 2006

    Unless this would lead to simpler bills I think it may be a bit extreme. Wouldn’t it be better to assign a random committee of 10-20 to read the bill instead (make sure different party members are also represented for each committee) and then have those members brief others on the bill? This way, multiple bills would be read thoroughly by a number of people and everyone would get a general idea as to what is in each one. It would be nice to have everyone read every page but that just seems like it would slow down the process too much to get anything done at a decent pace. Congress would become backlogged and then that would create another problem with the voters (this is assuming the bills wouldn’t start to simplify though).

  4. #4 Roman Werpachowski
    February 16, 2006

    that every member of the Congress sign an affidavit saying that they have read, or heard read, every item in the bill.

    So that you can kill a bill by “being unable” to hear a part of it (like: going to the loo).

  5. #5 KeithB
    February 16, 2006

    Going to the loo would only work in the House of Commons. 8^)

    Actually, I am sure it would be that you can’t *vote* on a bill unless you had read it, so if you don’t hear it or read it you must pass on voting for it.

  6. #6 spyder
    February 16, 2006

    Anything that empowers even the Congressional staffers to examine the seemingly endless “earmarking” of legislation and the sometimes hidden textual additions to “must-pass” bills such as those for appropriations, is a benefit to all of us. The notion of “backlogging” Congress is not valid; it is their job, and they have relatively highly paid staffs to perform these reviews anyway. This bill asks them to verify they are actually doing what they are supposed to do in the first place. The process as it is now, is being used to plug lobbying interests’ provisions secretly into various pieces of legislation, disguising pet projects, inserting last second amnesties for corporate malfeasance, and so forth. Voters need to begin to hold their elected officials accountable, and having such a bill provides a record of responsibility. If X signs that s/he read the bill before voting on it, then later complains s/he didn’t know that a,b,c, was in that bill, X’s constituents can hold that up to the deserved ridicule.

  7. #7 beervolcano
    February 16, 2006

    You can’t prove that a member read the bill or not.

    I would propose putting word limits on bills or page limits as well as making members sign an affidavit or swear an oath that they have read the bill before they can vote on it.

  8. #8 beervolcano
    February 16, 2006

    Oh, and that would be maximum irony, but I think they should seriously do it.

    Can you imagine Frist’s reaction to it? “I’ve never been smacked in the face like that in my life!”

    I think if they did stick it in the middle of a huge bill it would really drive the point home…and make them read bills from then on.

  9. #9 KeithB
    February 16, 2006

    Seems to me this is a Sauce-Goose-Gander thing. If Congress (in Sarbane-Oxley) can force CEO’s to sign off on financial statements, then members of congress can sign off that they have read and understand the bills themselves.

  10. #10 Matthew
    February 16, 2006

    Seems rather impractical.

  11. #11 Ginger Yellow
    February 16, 2006

    I’ll take “impractical” over “hideously susceptible to corruption and damaging to the political fabric of our nation” every time.

  12. #12 Ed Darrell
    February 16, 2006

    Congressman H. R. Gross used to read every bill. It greatly limited his effectiveness.

    When the committee system works well, it’s not necessary to read every bill. Why not fix the committee system instead?

  13. #13 raj
    February 17, 2006

    Let’s face it: even if such a bill passed, it is unlikely that the members themselves would spend much time reading them. They would delegate that task to their staffs. The staffs would then notify the members of provisions that they believe that the members might find objectionable.

  14. #14 Jeff Hebert
    February 17, 2006

    Ed Darrell wrote:
    When the committee system works well, it’s not necessary to read every bill. Why not fix the committee system instead?

    The committees would also have to read every bill put before them. You would assume they wouldn’t send every one on. So they’d be weeding out the bad bills from the decent ones (in theory) just like they do now. The difference is that once the bills get out of committee and someone else has to vote on them, that someone else would have to read it rather than blindly trusting the committee on every single bill.

    Raj wrote:
    Let’s face it: even if such a bill passed, it is unlikely that the members themselves would spend much time reading them. They would delegate that task to their staffs. The staffs would then notify the members of provisions that they believe that the members might find objectionable.

    I think the idea is that you would read each bill aloud in session to the entire group of legislators. If you aren’t there for the reading of the bill you can’t vote on it. This would help keep bills shorter, because who wants to sit through twelve hours of reading one bill on hammer procurement for the Navy? It would also make it harder to slip in legislation in page 253 between two irrelevant passages at the last minute.

    And if it limits the effectiveness of the whole Congress in terms of how many bills they can pass in a session — that’s another bonus, in my book!

  15. #15 Michael "Sotek" Ralston
    February 17, 2006

    Another thing to note is that if a congressman tries to read all the bills NOW, that limits his effectiveness – because he won’t be able to read all the bills by the time they’re to be voted on.

    If an act like this passes, though, that changes.

  16. #16 Perry Willis
    February 17, 2006

    Thanks for the plug Ed. We’ve mentioned you, in turn, on our blog and in an email to our 20,000+ subscribers. I hope you pick up some new readers.

    We appreciate the comments, questions, and suggestions above. Rather than respond to them one-by-one I urge everyone to check out the Read the Bills page at DownsizeDC.org where all of these issues and more are addressed. And please join us in hammering Congress to pass this legislation.

    Thanks again Ed!

  17. #17 chico
    February 17, 2006

    Sometimes not reading the bills actually works in our favor!

    Clerical Error Jeopardizes Deficit-Reduction Law
    by Julie Rovner, Morning Edition, February 13, 2006

    Turns out one little number puts the Senate and House versions of the recent, hotly contested budget bill signed by B into question… Please ask your House Dems and progressive Pubs to force a revote on the entire, heinous budget bill.

    And, of course, remind ’em to sponsor RTBA!

  18. #18 Roman Werpachowski
    February 19, 2006

    I think such laws are merely trying to amend the true deficit of modern democracy: that the voters aren’t interested in holding their representatives accountable. If the voters cared, no politician could justify voting for something with “but I didn’t know it was there!”. He would lose the next election. As long as voters do not care, sleaze and corruption will rule the world of politics.

  19. #19 Ed Darrell
    February 19, 2006

    There is a rule in the U.S. House of Representatives that requires no less than three hours be allowed for members to read each piece of legislation. Current leadership frequently waives the rule.

    What possible means of enforcement could there be?

  20. #20 Perry Willis
    February 19, 2006

    I understand your position Roman. It is one I once held. But it assumes that there is an effective way for citizens to express their caring at the ballot box. I think there is not.

    Our electoral system is winner-takes-all. This works to establish a two-party system. If the candidates of both parties are bad, then I can care all I want, but I have no one to vote for in order to express my caring.

    The major party’s tend to nominate big government candidates because the incentives are skewed in that direction. Government favors are concentrated on a few, while the costs are spread out over all taxpayers. Thus, the recipients of government benefits have a large incentive to contribute to, work for, and vote for, candidates who give them favors, while the average taxpayer has less motivation to organize in the same way to support candidates who would cut back on government. But it gets worse . . .

    Incumbent office holders rig the game. They gerrymander districts and erect campaign finance laws and ballot access laws designed to cripple challengers. Meanwhile . . .

    Tazpayers are working their butts off to support a governmental system that consumes nearly half of their income (when the cost of all levels of government is added together). Who has time and money to spend on political campaigns against well-funded professionals in a rigged contest?

    And then you have the mainstream media, which is very cozy with incumbents, because that’s where the power is. Many people have given up on the electoral system not because they don’t care what happens, but because they reasonably believe they can have no meaningful influence on the outcome.

    That’s why created Downsize DC and the Read the Bills Act. We believe there can be an effective alternative to electoral politics. Our idea is to provide the millions of Americans who want smaller government with easy, in-expensive, and non-time-consuming ways to overwhelm the 535 people in Congress who do so much damage to the hard working taxpayer. And ideas like the Read the Bills Act provide a perfect way to united people across political and ideological lines for that purpose.

    How many people would it take to unite behind the Read the Bills Act to overwhlem a mere 535 with emails, letter, faxes, phone calls, and local media until they just can’t stand the pressure (and the embarrassment!) anymore, and they pass RTBA to get some relief, if for no other reason? Why don’t we try to find out?

  21. #21 Perry Willis
    February 19, 2006

    Ed, a rule can be waived in session. A law cannot. One of the findings in the “Read the Bills Act” is that a law is required because Congress has repeatedly ignored its own rules. What’s more, unlike many laws which seek to limit government, RTBA has an enforcement mechanism in the text. Failure to pass legislation according to the requirements of RTBA would render such a law void. The President could not execute the law, and if he attempted to do so there would be grounds to challenge the execution in court, or to defend oneself against any application of the improperly passed law.

    Go check it out!

  22. #22 Gretchen
    February 19, 2006

    As long as voters do not care, sleaze and corruption will rule the world of politics.

    Truer words never spoken. It would be nice to have the U.S. divided into two halves– one with voters who give a damn, and one for those who don’t.

  23. #23 Treban
    February 20, 2006

    I think this is the best suggestion for legislation that would actualy make our democracy functional that I have heard except for publicly financed campaigns. My gods, the two together might actualy bring us representative government – that is, government that represents us instead of corporations and big business.

  24. #24 Matthew
    February 20, 2006

    Maybe we can give the congressmen pop quizzes periodically to make sure they’ve read them.

  25. #25 Ed Darrell
    February 20, 2006

    After reading the text of the bill, it seems to me it would indeed be the end of legislation as we know it. How could anything pass?

    The filibuster would seem too tame. All that would be necessary to block a bill would be to refuse to read it.

    Again, I think the problem is not that there is not enough antipathy in Washington, but not enough cooperation. I don’t think this bill offers much hope of increasing cooperation nor of increasing attention to details of the bills. It looks like H. R. Gross writ large — and of course, we are all familiar with his legislative achievements, yes?

  26. #26 Perry Willis
    February 20, 2006

    To Ed Darrell,

    If a majority supports a bill then a majority will read the bill. It is no different today. The leadership does not bring a bill to a vote unless they’re fairly certain they have a majority to pass it. The reading requirement doesn’t change this dynamic.

    What it does change is the speed at which things can be done. They will have to move slower because they will have to know what they are passing. More importantly, because of the reading requirement, it will be harder to pass things that have minority support by combining them with other items that do have majority support.

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