25 September 2009

Complicated bills

I'm with John and Eric on this one. Reading the bills, it's sort of a populist thing. We are assuming that laws which would have to be read would be 1) voted against if they were too complex or long (which is probably a desirable outcome) or 2) would be voted against if they were actually bad legislation (definitely a desirable outcome). There is no evidence that either will be in fact true. Reading something lawyer-ly tends to require a lawyer to translate it. Which is why instead of reading the bills, Congress tends to outsource this to expert committees first, then toward lobbying groups or staffers to do the actual grunt work of interpreting the tapestry of law. And because there are so many permutations and effects to crafting a law, it is necessary to make some of them rather complex, even where they are simple and universally understood to be necessary. For example, killing human being, considered a universal moral crime, has about 10 different legal codes associated with it. It has to in order to account for things like self-defense, suicide, accidental deaths, premeditation, police/military necessity (and its opposed brutality) and so on.

Likewise, there are lots of citizen groups that try to get bills posted as soon as they go up and begin interpreting them. The assumption is that if these groups come up with enough support to say "this is a bad bill", it would be killed. But that hasn't shown itself to be true almost ever. There are a couple of high-intensity stakes (immigration in 2006, or particular amendments within the stimulus or health care bills) that were taken out in this manner. But then the "de-fund ACORN" bill, something which seems to be either Un-Constitutional, with a capital U, or just a hasty and sloppy law which probably would have passed anyway even if people had read the thing because of the optics of politics. The PATRIOT act is another example. The ideological positions of Congressmen and the political framing of an issue (the public interpretation of a yea or nay vote) is generally going to trump understanding of an issue and hence real objections to its passage. As a result, you get situations like Russ Feingold being the only no vote on the original PATRIOT act in the Senate, the one guy who ideologically supports civil liberties, even in the face of demands for some feeling of absolute (impossible) security. If reading the bills actually stopped bills which are bad for the public interest or out of line with both the Constitution and the public sentiments and had a track record of accomplishing this, then fine, I'd be in favor of it. But thus far, the things that "requirement" has defeated have seemed to be the more reasonable, usually cost saving, things (birth control subsidies in the stimulus bill for people on unemployment, immigration reform and streamlining, living will consultations paid for by medicare), while bad bills continue to pass. This is not an encouraging sign.
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