Congress’s Archaic Information Practices

There have been more than 2,700 bills introduced so far in the current Congress. That’s more than 30 bills per day, every day this year, weekends included. Ordinary Americans have a hard time keeping up, of course. Congress does, too.

The controversy around the anti-sex-trafficking bill in the Senate last week illustrates this well. Debate around the formerly non-controversial bill fell into disarray when Democrats discovered language in the bill that would apply the Hyde Amendment to fines collected and disbursed by the government. (The Hyde Amendment bars government spending on abortion. Democrats argue that it has only applied in the past to appropriated funds, not disbursement of fines.)

How is it that it took until late March for Democrats to discover controversial language in a bill that was introduced in January?

Well, Congress is awash in archaic practices. For one, bills are written in “cut and bite” style—change this line, change that word, change another—rather than in a form that lays out what the law would look like if the bill were passed. That makes bills unreadable—a situation Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) has sought to remedy.

In this case, the bill just made an obscure reference to the Hyde Amendment in prior law. One staffer knew about it, but the information didn’t make its way up the food chain. Throughout the rest of the Democratic caucus, apparently, no one else checked it out because it’s hard to do. If the office that’s leading on the issue is OK with the bill, why look up the meaning of obscure bill language?

Derek Willis of the New York Times explains how Congress can do better:

There’s already an effort to modernize most congressional legislation drafting, but it isn’t coming from inside government. The Cato Institute, the libertarian-leaning research and policy organization, created the Deepbills Project, which takes legislation published by Congress and adds references, including to existing laws and government organizations like federal agencies and congressional committees.

Our work allows references to prior law in bills to be made into web links, which anyone could click to see what those references mean. If Congress did this, it would be a lot easier to read the bills.

Willis is is right that Congress, not Cato, should be in charge of this modernization.

It can take a lot of time to work through the thousands of bills that are written in every session. Making it a part of the official legislative drafting process, when the legal staff would already have the semantic information needed, could help staffers, lobbyists, citizens and, yes, members of Congress figure out what specific language means and what it refers to.