July 14, 2009
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.
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”.
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! :-)