I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two proposed ammendments

I'm not an economist. Nor am I particularly an expert in government, or the constitution, or law. I am someone who attempts to keep informed, but I confess, a lot of stuff that our government does defies any attempt to keep informed.

The stimulus bill, for instance. The house drafted one enormous bill in only a couple of days, the senate drafted a different enormous bill in a similarly short time, a committee got together and melded the two into a third bill in under a week, a bill that was over a thousand pages long, that was voted on for final approval so swiftly that no average person could possibly have sat down and read every single line of this bill. I'm guessing that congress and the White House have teams to tackle the work of actually reading and writing these things; a couple of dozen people draft it, a couple of dozen people read it in chunks and give the actual lawmakers a two page memo with a lot of bullet points. It goes into law with no single legislator actually having read it.

When Enron collapsed, or the Wall Street investment firms crumbled, the CEOs were trotted before congress to be publicly berated for their irresponsibility. The CEOs often blame their woes on bad information from underlings. Congressmen rightly ask why were the CEOs collecting multimillion dollar salaries to run businesses when they now admit they didn't really understand everything that was going on.

Yet, how is our government any different? Not one elected official actually read the largest spending bill they've ever voted on. Obama is a very smart man by all accounts, but he cannot possibly be enough of a speed reader to actually go through this bill line by line and understand precisely what it is he's enacting.

I'm not defending auto industry executives, oil barons, peanut processing bosses, airline CEOs, or the titans of Wall Street, but for all the failures of their various industries, no single firm or business has ever found itself 12 trillion in debt. Where are the hearings where congressmen are called to testify before a panel of American citizens under oath and explain how they managed to run our country into the financial ditch?

Actually, minus the part about being under oath, we have the chance every two years to hold our congressmen to account. With the exception of a tiny handful of citizens, we can't be bothered. The percentage of voting age Americans who can even name their congressional representative is a joke. And, I'm no better; for all my ranting about the duty of being an informed citizen, I have representational fatigue. I can name my congressman and senators at the federal level, but I don't have a clue who represents me in Raleigh, nor can I think of the name of the mayor of my town as I type this. I'd probably recognize it if I heard it, but right now it's all lost in the brain fog.

I doubt we'll ever see another constitutional amendment passed in our lifetime, but I do have a modest proposal for a 28th amendment:

Congress shall pass no bill longer than 1oo pages, double spaced, 12 point courier font, with one inch margins on a standard sheet of legal paper (8.5x14).

This means bills like the annual budget and the stimulus bill, or funding for various wars, couldn't be voted on in huge omnibus bills that no one can possibly read. Every law would be of a size that there would be no excuse for a representative not to actually read it before passing it. Also, breaking bills up would clean out some of the crazy stuff that gets stuck in.

And, how about this for the 29th:

No representative may vote on a bill without signing an oath, under penalty of perjury, that he has read the bill in full.

I wish I could think of some amendment that would fix the American public, but perhaps that's asking too much of my brain on a lazy Sunday morning....


Loren Eaton said...

James, those are two darn good ideas.

Eric James Stone said...

James, there are two weaknesses in your 29th amendment. First, someone could speed-read the bill, without much comprehension, and still sign the oath.

Second, you would require anyone voting on the bill to have read it in full.

My alternative, based on an idea I blogged last month, requires the Members of Congress to be present at a verbal reading of the entire bill in order to vote in favor of it.

Now, while the comprehension problem may remain, requiring presence at a verbal reading of the bill would be far more inconvenient to Members of Congress than signing an oath that they have read a bill. It takes a lot of time, and would generally slow down the process of legislation.

But notice that this requirement applies only to voting in favor of a bill. My proposal would allow someone to vote against a bill without having read (or heard) a word of it. Since the passage of bad legislation seem much more of a problem than the non-passage of good legislation, I think that it makes sense to put more of a burden on those who seek to pass legislation.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Loren. Eric, I think your approach has merit, but I don't see why legislators opposing the bill should get a free pass from having to listen to the bill as well. I'm paying their salaries to go there and represent me; they are supposed to be my eyes and ears on legislation. I would want them just as informed in opposing legislation as in supporting it. I don't intend this to be a punishment to representatives who want to use government to get stuff done. I just want some proof that my representatives are actually doing their job.

Eric James Stone said...

James, suppose there's a 100-page bill entitled "The Health Care Nationalization Act," which by the provisions on its first page would provide government-funded health care for everyone in the United States.

A Member of Congress who supports some form of socialized medicine and votes for the bill should not be allowed to plead ignorance of the provision on page 97 that provides incentives for doctors to euthanize terminally ill patients in order to save funds.

But does a Member of Congress who opposes socialized medicine really need to read the whole bill in order to make an informed vote against it? He can know just from its first page that it is something he opposes.

James Maxey said...

Eric, I understand your logic on this, but it still seems like basic fairness that the reading requirement would cut both ways.

One potential problem with either of our proposals, however, is that it might wind up giving courts and beaurocrats even more power than they already have. I could see short, vaguely worded bills passing along the lines of, "This bill gives the EPA the authority to regulate disposable diapers" (or whatever), and punting to the EPA to draft the final regulations... which is pretty much what happens now, only frequently bridges and libraries somehow get attached.

I think at the heart of both our desires is the same thing, however: making our representatives actually do the jobs they are elected to do.

And, in truth, no constitutional amendments would be needed at all if the public would take up their part of the shared civic responsibility. It's perhaps appropriate that the national debt is placing every American citizen in hock. We voted for these lawmakers who ran up the debt, after all. It's the debt we're going to pass on to our grandkids that bothers me most.

John Brown said...

Both blogs make excellent points. I simply cannot believe someone would not read the bill.

However, I will say that my uncle, who was Chief of Staff for many years for Orrin Hatch told me of an experience when Hatch first arrived in Washington. He read every bill and showed up for every vote. He argued his position. He was completely invovled.

And he soon was taken aside and asked what the heck he was doing? That isn't how politics is done, he was told. You don't go fight every bill. Otherwise, you'll make too many enemies to do anything. You support who you can so you'll have support when you need it for things important to you.

So even if they showed up and listened, my question is whether it would make any difference at all.

James Maxey said...

My main concern with having legislators actually read the bills is that legislation is increasingly being passed in huge omnibus bills where everything and the kitchen sink gets thrown into a bill, and congressmen wind up supporting tons of odd little projects they wouldn't support if things were voted on individually.

For the stimulus bill, there are probably dozen of different laws being passed--I really don't know how many. But, you have a tax cut. You have an increase in certain road projects. You also have increased funding for children's health care, and the creation of a review panel to review competing health car treatments.

It seems to me that these four items alone should have required four different bills.

Our laws are being sold to us the same way cable TV gets sold to us. If we want three channels we will watch--Discovery, Cartoon Network, and Comedy central, for instance--we also have to pay for 50 channels we never watch.

I just hate seeing laws get passed with the same approach. To do one good thing, you have to swallow a dozen useless, dumb, or even harmful things.