Reading Is Fundamental

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, there’s a good discussion about Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT, Dead Man Walking) and his recent surprise to discover certain provisions in the recent “financial reform” law.

What’s so surprising about this is that Dodd wrote the damned bill.

OK, that’s a little unfair. No one believes Dodd actually wrote the bill. What Dodd did was put his name on it, but presumably because it had been written with his input and he agreed with it enough to sponsor it.

The first point this raises is a rather moot one: that Dodd is a corrupt, inept, greedy, lazy swine who should never have been entrusted with any political office higher than City Pooper Scooper. But since he’s finally leaving office (sadly, not chased out by defeat or headed off to prison), kicking him is rather meaningless. Not pointless, as it reminds all of us just what the good people of Connecticut saddled us for far too long, and we shouldn’t be too eager to forgive them, and certainly fun, but pointless.

The bigger point is this: should we expect our lawmakers to read and be familiar with every detail of every law they pass? Even the ones where they don’t claim authorship? For example, the “health care reform” bill ran over 2,000 pages (that’s almost a half a case of paper — run down to your local office supply place and look at four reams for a visual aid) — how the hell can we expect ANYONE to actually read all that before casting their vote?

How the hell can we NOT? How can we not only expect it, but demand it?

Everyone knows the saying that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” We’re all expected to obey the laws, even if we don’t know what the laws are.

But isn’t it even more critical for the people making the laws to understand what they’re imposing?

That would make an interesting scene in court: the defendant is accused of breaking the law. They call as a witness the official author of the law and ask them to testify on just what the law says and what their intent was, and watch them fumble and stammer and finally admit that they are just as ignorant of the true effects of their law as the defendant was.

It’d never happen, of course. No judge would allow it, and no legislator would walk into the courtroom without having been briefed night and day on the bill. But imagine that in some of the more complicated cases — such as my personal favorite, the corruption trial of Tom DeLay — if DeLay could have called up the authors of the laws he was accused of violating as “expert witnesses” and explain just what the law covered and how DeLay had broken it.

So, the bills are too complicated and involved and just plain too long to properly review before they’re called for a vote? There are several very easy solutions.

The first is to delay the legislation until it can be reviewed properly.

The second is to make the laws simpler. If it’s a real crisis, then a simple bill can address the immediate problems, and the long-term concerns can be addressed after due consideration.

The third one is the one I favor: if a lawmaker is uncertain as to just what a bill does, then he or she should “just say no.”

In college, I served in student government. And I had a simple rule: if I didn’t understand a motion, and didn’t have time to study up on it, I voted no. This not only preserved the status quo, but left me in a position to introduce a “motion to reconsider” should I later find out I should have backed the measure.

But I refused to give my assent to anything I didn’t understand.

Now, that was an extremely trivial example, but the principle scales nicely. It also dovetails with the first principle of medical ethics: “First, do no harm.”

Finally, there is one reason above all else that demands that lawmakers actually read and understand the laws they vote on:

It’s their goddamned jobs,

This is the job they sought out and fought for. This is the job they begged us to entrust them with. This is the job for which they are paid very handsomely.

The most important part of their job is to pass or reject laws. Everything else takes a back seat. And if they are saying that — for whatever reason — they can’t carry out the most fundamental part of their job, then they need to get out of that job. Willingly or unwillingly.

When a lawmaker says that they did not fully read and understand a bill that they voted for, that should be seen by their constituents as a de facto resignation. Because they’ve just admitted that they’re taking our pay and acting in our names while not knowing what the hell they are doing.

But back to Dodd. He’s done. He’s history come January.

But there are a lot more members of Congress who are admitting that they voted for bills — the “financial reform” and “health care reform” bills are good recent examples — that they didn’t even read, but just trusted their party’s leadership that they were good and fine.

We need to remind them that they don’t work for Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, but for us — and we expect them to do their goddamned jobs.

And if they won’t, we’ll find someone who will.

Just look at the economic news — lots of people need jobs these days. And the job market for “legislator fired by voters” is pretty crappy.

And any politician who would dare say something like “we just have to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it” needs to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail.

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