Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How Big Bills Get Read

Concern has been expressed about the practice of voting on bills that one has not read. How can one possibly assent to or oppose a thousand-page document that has been finalized only the day before?

The short answer is that this just another fake issue brought to you by the Iraq-has-WMDs, Terri-Schiavo-Can-Talk, Cigarettes-Are-Good-For-You crowd, but it's worth a brief think. Voting for or against a lengthy bill of which you have not read every word is both necessary and, if the effort is properly organized, wise (note the qualification).


Significant legislation is usually complex because it modifies already complex code (e.g. the U.S. Code), using necessarily imprecise natural language, in ways that humans naturally seek to twist to their advantage.

Ideally, legislation would be simple enough to fit on a notecard so we can all discuss it. For Example, "Cruel and unusual punishments are prohibited" would be a good law to have. In fact we have it, but some fans of torture have found a way to allow it anyway (at least until a prosecutor has the balls to do something about it. We'll see.)

So generally you need to state with great specificity which bits of the U.S. Code, or whatever, you are amending. The U.S. Code has grown very complicated and, regrettably, was not designed with the modularity et cetera that we have come to know and love in software. So unless you are doing something very simple and pretty sure no-one is going to try to get around it, it is necessary to write very long bills.

Since long bills are often necessary, when is a Representative or Senator going to find time to read them? Few Americans read a thousand-page book every week, but that is far less than the minimum that would be required to keep up with the legislation that must be voted up. And Congresscritter do a lot more than vote;

  • Congress holds hearings so it can learn facts relevant to its vote; surely it would be pointless to read a thousand-page bill and not have the facts on hand with which to evaluate.
  • Thanks to the financial corruption in our political system, Congresscritters much endless seek new sources of contributions. This takes time.
  • Constituent services are important and time-consuming.
  • Some members of Congress spend time with their families. Do we really want our laws made by people who don't take time for their kids?
All of the above cuts into value time needed to read those huge bills!

If you are unconvinced as to the necessity of complexity in the particular area of health care reform, I agree. A much simpler and more bill would be: "Any American citizen may subscribe to Medicare upon paying a premium to be set from time-to-time by the Center for Medicare Management". I think this would be much better than the huge "public option"bill - Read More Here - It's Definitely Worth It!.


You can vote wisely for or against a thousand-page bill without reading the whole thing by organizing a team of subordinates to do the work for you. This is analogous to how a manger runs a team that writes software. It has been the practice for a very long time.

Problems arise when bills are thrown together without giving the team time to analyze the provisions (e.g. USA/PATRIOT) or when assent is giving as a matter of obedience to party or class masters (e.g. USA/PATRIOT), but bills whose provisions have been chewed over for YEARS (e.g. healthcare) will typically be addressed by teams of legislative aids familiar with the topics.

Now I'm not going to say whether HR3200 or any of the other proposals being tossed around are wise or necessarily complex (I favor Hartmann's short-form patch to Medicare) but I hope I have addressed the criticism that HR3200 or whatever hasn't been read. It has ... just by teams, not individuals.

We don't expect Bill Gates to read every line of code before relasing the next version of Windows.

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