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Reading the Riot Act

Legislators – in the US, but probably elsewhere too – don’t read bills before they vote on them. No one could.

Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion

July 14, 2009 / Uncategorized


What’s your rationale for literally reading them out loud — aside from the poetry of it? Is it the notion that reading a 1,900-page bill would take, literally, days or weeks, and so that provides the ‘speed bump’ we need to really review it?

I mean, people in Congress have demonstrated a remarkable ability to read long, boring, senseless things into the record already. I wouldn’t underestimate their verbal fortitude. Or are we counting on it — and then while they’re distracted with the reading, we are quickly digesting, researching, sounding the alarms?

I think that’s it exactly. If people in Congress want to say, “that will be too long, too tedious, too wasteful of our time” – we can say, “just who do you think you’re talking about?”

Also – silent reading is essentially unfalsifiable. A public reading aloud is the only way to confirm that something has indeed been read.

I think this is brilliant. I’ve been thinkinng about this recently too, because of all the amendments and tack-ons that have been forced on the energy bill. It’s extremely frustrating how much bills mix topics. I completely understand that there is a certain quid pro quo (You vote for this and I will vote for that) but I hate the fact that it has to happen in the same bill (legislators apparently don’t realize that the prisoner’s dilemma yields cooperation when its cumulative and has memory over the same group. . ), because it makes it impossible for citizen oversight or input. It’s just mathematically inelegant–unrelated topics should not have artificital interaction terms introduced between them. But how to get rid of it?

This would tackle the problem from a much simpler, if blunter, standpoint. Having to read it outloud shortens it, and we all know that shortening text focuses it. Forcing someone to read it out loud would help make it clearer. Unrelated texts can be read in parallel. There can be a special set of live-streaming seminar rooms in the LoC; besides seats reserved for the representatives, executive branch members, their staff, and the press there would be a gallery for tourists and school children. No registered lobbyists allowed? 😉 The recorded audio would be fed back to Thomas, so that blind readers would get a more pleasing, human rendition of the text; the video would have both speech-recognized subtitles and the actual text, karaoke style—Rockband for orators. Anyone in the gallery may hit a red button whenever the language is unclear upon reading, or key in an annotation, and the timing will automatically annotate the bill with all this data; similarly with anyone on the web. Histograms of inclarity would become an election liability for the offending legislators/prose composers. Perhaps the actual reading would be mostly done by staff, but interested citizens could apply to read bills they cared about, or it could be a rite of passage for various graduates, like a Torah-reading. If a bill cannot be read aloud at an even tempo in the course of 8 hours, it is too long and must be broken up.

If legislators are going to skip out on this public ceremony, they must personally affidavit each page of the text before they are allowed to vote; failure to do so renders them effectively absent and gets chalked up to their absence record. You can imagine a system such that every time a bill is put before the whole floor, a clock starts ticking, but its actually just an input clock to a compounding clock that spits out and extends deadlines based on how many bills are before the floor; when reading deadlines have been extended beyond a week, the system accepts no new bills.

Betty Ann says…

This could help a bit now

Support H.Res.554

Amending the Rules of the House of Representatives to require that legislation and conference reports be available on the Internet for 72 hours before consideration by the House, and for other purposes.

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