spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

July 14, 2009

<< Ferguson/Fallows on China | Boy, If Life Were Only Like This >>

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 “stimulus’’ bill in February - the largest spending bill in history - after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House.

Conor Fridersdorf proposes we require that politicians read laws before they pass:

Simpler, shorter laws more accessible to the citizenry would result. Legislators couldn’t plausibly claim ignorance about an egregious measure slipped into a bill for which they voted. Special interests would have less ability to hide advantageous language in thickets of subsections. The majority party couldn’t game the system, using timing and parliamentary procedure to pass measures that wouldn’t survive scrutiny. Powerful politicians would demand better, clearer writing if they had to wade through it themselves. An ability to consider fewer total pieces of legislation might even encourage the House and Senate to better prioritize their time. Finally, the average citizen wouldn’t regard the reality of their legislative system as a corrupt sham.

Okay, let’s imagine this. Laws - maybe even laws above a certain threshold, whether for dollars, or years, or whatever - must be given a full public reading before they are passed. That is, read out loud.

I don’t really care if or even want that every member of Congress should have to sit there and listen to it. It’s a *public* reading. It’s not for them, really - it’s for us. In the meantime, you’ve got journalists and citizens liveblogging and reporting the thing, so people can check out what’s inside.

Then after the public reading is finished, there’s a day of deliberation before the vote, during which time folks can vet the bill and voice their opinion to their representatives.

Most people won’t care. Most don’t know. Maybe the laws will still be just as long, the language extra-confusing, just to obfuscate things further. That’s true now. But there’s a great deal more potential here, I think, for good things to happen - smart things, dramatic things, democratic things. Anyways, it’s worth a shot.

“Riot Act,” Wikipedia [7/14/09]:

The act created a mechanism for certain local officials to make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together”. If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the Mayor, Bailiffs or “other head officer”, or a Justice of the Peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a Justice of the Peace or the Sheriff or Under-Sheriff. It had to be read out to the gathering concerned, and had to follow precise wording detailed in the act; several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular “God save the King”.[citation needed]

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!

“Citation needed” is right! :-)

Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:00 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkpolitik


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.

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.

Posted by: Betty Ann on July 14, 2009 at 03:43 PM
spacer image
spacer image