The “Read the Bill” Debate and Government Growth

There’s an interesting back-and-forth over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether legislators should have to read the actual legislative text of bills they vote on. Most people’s intuitive reaction is: “Duh, of course!” But if you’ve ever actually spent time poring over legislative text, you know that reading the bill itself seldom leaves you with a very good sense of what it does. Legislation is typically a tangle of modifications along the lines of “Strike paragraph 2, replace the period with a semicolon, insert the word ‘reasonable’ in the following sentence…”—which is why legislators have staffers who prepare plain-English summaries of the effects of legislation. Now certainly it would be possible to render bills somewhat more readable to ordinary people. Saving paper is not a huge concern in the digital era, so there’s no good reason legislation couldn’t simply contain the full text of the statutory provisions it amended, perhaps including a side-by-side comparison highlighting the changes. Even this, however, wouldn’t necessarily be all that illuminating. I’ve got a reference book on my desk that contains the 80-or-so pages of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and then a few hundred pages explaining what it actually means. It’s not enough to know what the verbatim text says; you need to understand how it interacts with other statutes, how key terms are defined in the law, how courts have interpreted the law’s provisions, and so on.

Legislation could be written in a somewhat more transparent way, but in light of all these complex interactions, it can’t actually be that much more transparent, for the same reason computer programs are a lot longer and more impenetrable than a plain-English description of what the program does. Achieving a result in a complex rule-based system requires a level of precision and sensitivity to how terms are used within the system that’s at odds with colloquial description. Of course, for precisely the same reason that summaries will give an ordinary person a better understanding of a law than scrutiny of the verbatim text, they also give a very incomplete understanding. An ordinary language description will tell you what a computer program is supposed to do. If you want to know whether it’s going to crash or open up a security vulnerability under certain conditions, perhaps when it interacts with other software running simultaneously, you need to have a look at the source code. Again, if you’ve spent any time digging through legislation, you know that the staff summary of a bill often glosses over many interesting little details and ambiguities you can ferret out while reading the text.

Most legislators, of course—even those with legal training—cannot possibly have the kind of expertise needed to undertake meaningful scrutiny of the details of legislative text outside a tiny number of issue areas. So does it make sense to insist that every member of Congress literally “read the bill”? Probably not. The actual text will contain important details not captured in a summary, but only an expert will really understand what those are on the basis of the text anyway. Crucially, this is not a function of needless obscurantism on the part of Congress: it is a necessary feature of legislation in a legal system as complex as ours. Which means that there’s a pretty basic tension between the value of democratic transparency and a large, complex government. Past a certain point, it’s more or less impossible for any individual legislator—let alone ordinary citizens—to really understand the vast majority of bills Congress takes up in any detailed way.