The Transparency Conundrum

October 6th, 2009

ObamaCare-VoteSeems there’s a lot of opposition among Democrats in Congress over the idea of posting bills online for 72 hours before they’re voted on.  Obviously with an eye on health care reform legislation, almost all Republicans and some Democrats are for it, while the congressional leadership is against it.

There’s a move afoot to institute the rule in the House; the Senate rejected the idea last week.

Seems politicians don’t much like the unwashed masses seeing the details of what they’re doing.  That includes the President, who promised to put bills online for five days of public comment before signing them.  That mostly hasn’t happened.

What could be wrong with letting the people read legislation before it’s voted on?  A lot, actually.  Bills are very confusing, written in arcane legal language, and full of references to other documents.  A flood of comment to members on a pending bill, some of it inevitably organized by opponents for the purpose of attacking the bill, could completely obstruct the legislative process.

What could be wrong with a requirement to give members of Congress and their staffs a reasonable amount of time to read and study legislation before it’s voted on?  Nothing, actually.  Some long, highly complex, and very expensive legislation has been voted on recently within hours of the completion of the final draft.  Many members voted for it before they read it.  But that’s nothing new — it’s been going on for years.

Therein lies the transparency conundrum.  Making legislation available for public review and comment before it’s voted on would be like watching sausage being made.  That’s not something we need to do, particularly when we already know that some of our fellow citizens will try to poison the sausage.  But there should be enough transparency in the process to permit citizens to be confident that their representatives have enough time to read legislation before they vote.

I know from working and commenting on legislation as a legislative liaison officer and an Army staff officer that it’s a daunting process.  I worked with a few members of Congress and many congressional staffers who struggled mightily to get things right, and more public kibitzing and nit-picking isn’t going to help. 

And before we get all righteous about this and attack those Stalinist Democrats for denying democracy-loving Republicans time to read bills, let’s remember that both parties have been guilty of rushing legislation through the process.  The way the Republicans pushed the Patriot Act through in 2001 is a good example.

The best thing we can do is let our representatives know what we want.  Let them struggle with the messy details of legislation.  That’s their job.

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8 Responses to “The Transparency Conundrum”

  1. doris |

    Most of us couldn’t understand the details anyway. This would leave those who do to misrepresent the words and meaning of the legislation. Knowing can be good, if you really understand and don’t believe all the idiots who will tell us what it really means.

  2. John Antilety |

    Famous Political Entities Who All Said “Trust us, we know what we’re doing,”:

    The Roman Empire (now dead)
    The Moors (now dead)
    The British Empire (no longer an empire)
    The Spanish Inquisition (murdered thousands)
    The US South (defeated, millions dead)
    The Nazi Party (now dead but took millions with them)
    The Khmer Rouge (now dead, killed millions)
    The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (now dead, took tens of millions with them)
    The Islamic Republic of Iran (working on it)
    Republic of Iraq (Saddam said this a lot, didn’t he?)
    The People’s Republic of China (still going, still killing)
    Burma-oops, I meant Union of Myanmar

    Funny…every time some politician says “Trust us, we know what we’re doing,” the people they ask to trust them all end up DEAD.

    Fork out the documents, Tom.


  3. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, their job is to protect our liberty and our coin. They are failing miserably at both, though they seem to be wildly succeeding at things which do not fall under their scope of legitimate power.

  4. Laurie |

    I don’t often agree with Tom, I do this time. Trust but verify is a reasonable concept, but unless you have the technical and legal skills to analyze the full language of the proposed bill in a meaningful way (by which I mean, NOT merely extracting a seemingly inflammatory line out of context and wreaking havoc on the public — and the legislative process — in a manner designed to distort the truth), there’s little purpose to posting pending legislation on-line for some arbitrary time limit.

    If we all paid more attention to the election process, from the local level on out, we’d have more reasonable grounds for trusting our elected officials — we’d know them and their records and beliefs. Getting involved at the front end is more powerful, I believe, than an imposed period to read pending legislation and try to make sense of the technical mark-up language.

  5. Erik |

    Fantastic! Let them post the bills. Maybe people will actually read and become involved. Who cares about parties? We should be looking at facts, not party loyalties.

  6. Brianna |

    You’re assuming the bills will not be thousand-page monstrosities that nobody could actually read without a week’s worth of free time and 10 gallons of coffee to keep them awake through the mind-numbing legalese.

    That said, post them. Maybe people actually trying to read them will help get rid of the thousand pages, impenetrable style, and inevitable pork projects.

  7. Brian Bagent |

    Laurie, the problem here is that when these laws make their way to court for trials (be they criminal or civil), the lawyers and judges nitpick them the way you seem to be afraid we poor commoners might. It is the nature of law to be parsed, word by word.

    A second problem is an underlying assumption that our legislators are somehow better or smarter than we are. Certainly many of them have what could be considered impressive pedigrees, but I’m one of those contrarians that is not impressed by pedigree.

    A third problem presents itself. While the health care bills are unusually long, it is not unusual for any given bill to be dozens or even a few hundred pages, especially bills pertaining to expenditure or collection of large sums of money. When there are lots of bills that are long, no one congressman can know the entire contents of any or all of them, so he relies on his unelected assistants and bureaucrats to provide him with a synopsis of each. The legislator then makes his decision based upon the utterances of people that are beholden to nobody. What if the assistant or bureaucrat is stupid or lazy? Or worse yet, what if that assistant/bureaucrat has a stake in the proposed legislation?

    It is a dangerous thing for a congressman to not know the entire contents of a bill. We did not elect their staffers. We did not elect the bureaucrats.

    From the pen of the writer of the constitution, an author of a majority of the Federalist papers, and the 3rd president of the United States:

    It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. — James Madison

    So if such laws are of little avail to the (common) people, it must stand to reason that they are of avail to someone or something, else they wouldn’t be drafted and enacted.

  8. No Oil for Pacifists |

    But some Dems not only want to shield proposed laws from the public–they prefer to remain ignorant of the contents themselves!

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