Sunday, March 1, 2009

Read the bill!

Transparency is the word/order of the day. Candidate Obama promised it, President Obama is moving towards greater transparency... A new campaign, "Read The Bill", is underway. From their web site: "Too often, controversial bills are voted on hours after coming to the House or Senate floor. There is no time for members of Congress to read the bill, and no chance for interested citizens to weigh in on the legislation.'s mission is to strengthen our democracy by making sure elected officials and citizens have the chance to read and understand legislation. A more transparent government begins with providing the people with the opportunity to tell their elected officials what they think of a piece of legislation, before it comes up for a vote. is an effort to gather individuals and groups, luminaries and everyday folks, conservatives, liberals and independents behind the simple concept that all non-emergency legislation should be available online for 72 hours before debate begins."

On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. However, it will not prove as useful as some might think. This blogger sometimes does read proposed legislation that is on subjects that interest him. From this experience he can say that there is a huge variation in how easy it is to understand - sometimes it is easily understood, sometimes it is well-nigh impossible to understand what is going on...

For example, this blogger read the 528-page ARRA (H.R. 1) when it was originally posted and understood it just fine, certainly well enough for the purpose of providing feedback to his senators and representatives, as well as to blog semi-coherently on the subject (see the January 28th entry 'Some recovery info', and the February 3rd entry, 'Stimulus update II...')

However, a counter-example was during the big debate in 2008 re amendments to FISA. When that legislation was working its way through the Congress, this blogger printed and read it, and could barely make out what was go on... It appeared to be hundreds of pages mostly referencing previous legislation and updating it e.g. striking previous language XXX and replacing it with amended YYY; change subsection b/para 2/line 5 from ‘and’ to ‘but’, etc. It was virtually impossible to understand, see below for a small sample. The legislation's opponents claimed that the bill undercut existing legislation, weakened civil protections, included unconstitutional provisions, etc. Proponents of the legislation claimed that this was nonsensical, that the proposed amendments just ratified the status quo, allowed the law to catch up with technology, etc., etc. Wading through the actual verbiage, of the proposed legislation this blogger had had no real basis for determining who was characterizing the bill more accurately!

The bottom line: instituting the changes called for by the "Read the Bill" crowd is just the very first step of what is needed. In this blogger's opinion much more is needed, for example a “plain English” explanation of intent and what is being included. This is especially necessary if the language includes modifications to existing legislation! Otherwise, forget it, posting proposed legislation even 30 days ahead of time would not really help the public one whit!

b) Use of Information-
(1) IN GENERAL- Section 106(k)(1)(B) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1806(k)(1)(B)) is amended by striking ‘sabotage or international terrorism’ and inserting ‘sabotage, international terrorism, or the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’.
(2) PHYSICAL SEARCHES- Section 305(k)(1)(B) of such Act (50 U.S.C. 1825(k)(1)(B)) is amended by striking ‘sabotage or international terrorism’ and inserting ‘sabotage, international terrorism, or the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’.
(c) Technical and Conforming Amendments- The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 is further amended–
(1) in paragraph (2) of section 105(d) (50 U.S.C. 1805(d)), as redesignated by section 105(a)(5) of this Act, by striking ‘section 101(a) (5) or (6)’ and inserting ‘paragraph (5), (6), or (7) of section 101(a)’;
(2) in section 301(1) (50 U.S.C. 1821(1)), by inserting ‘weapon of mass destruction,’ after ‘person,’; and
(3) in section 304(d)(2) (50 U.S.C. 1824(d)(2)), by striking ‘section 101(a) (5) or (6)’ and inserting ‘paragraph (5), (6), or (7) of section 101(a)’.

Note: This blogger is a big fan of transparency, having proposed a "Regulation FD" for campaign finance as far back as March 2002... But it needs to be much more than lip service, it needs to be done right!

1 comment:

  1. It is definitely the first step. We need to get government to take a few small steps before they can get running toward transparency.

    Read the Bill aims to get Congress to expect to have to post legislation 3 days before it is debated on. This will allow things like plain english to exist. If the public has the legislation they will want to know what is really in it. Now there is no way of knowing.

    Nisha Thompson
    Sunlight Foundation