A Question about Legislating

Photo by Elijah Mears on Unsplash

Yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio was trending on Twitter. He was complaining that he only had an hour to read an 80-page bill before having to vote on it. I don’t like Rubio, nor do I usually comment on trending topics on Twitter, but something struck me about this, and I tweeted:

I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Almost no one reads or interacts with my tweets on my best day. Sometimes a friend will crack a joke, but that’s about it. And I also thought it was such an obvious point that no one would care.

Strangely, two people pushed back against my tweet. The first one said that congresspeople have staff to read and summarize the bills. I responded to that with:

He responded to that by saying asking if I really believe that every piece of legislation is read from start to finish by the legislator. I replied:
Finally, another commenter asked me how many hours I think there are in a day. I didn’t respond to that one, but I’m aware of the fact that there are 24 hours in most days (they do small adjustments periodically and there are the two days a year when we switch between standard and daylight savings time). I don’t see how that’s relevant, though. There’s no reason why the legislators can’t take more than a day to study and debate legislation.

As I said before, the responses were unexpected, not unwelcome, just unexpected. I’ve believed for ages that congresspeople should actually read what they vote on. I thought that was a pretty ubiquitous belief. How could anyone feel differently? But apparently some people do feel differently, so I want to explain where I’m coming from.

The way it is now, where staffers divide up the bill, read their parts, and report to the legislator with a summary has a few problems. In one of my tweets, I said it reduces legislating to a game of telephone, so I’ll start there purple, monkey, dishwasher. Any time a group of people work together to interpret information, there are competing interpretations. Anyone who ever did a group project in school knows this. It happens all the time that the spokesperson starts speaking and other members of the group start complaining that, “that’s not what we said!” I’d like to think congressional staffers are more careful than middle-schoolers, but, at the same time, I’m sure apocryphal things wind up in the summaries on a fairly regular basis.

Next, the more people involved, the more opportunities for bias exist. Summarizing is basically pulling out the important bits. But who’s to say what’s important and what isn’t? If we have bias in our laws, it should at least come from the elected officials, not their unelected staffers. The typical staffer is white, in their twenties with a bachelor’s degree. It’s not a diverse pool. These are the people charged with picking out the important parts of civil rights legislation? Retirement legislation? That seems wrong to me.

Finally, what is a congressperson’s job if not to read, study, and debate legislation before voting on it? Obviously, that’s not all they do, but shouldn’t it be, along with crafting legislation, the most important thing they do? They are legislators after all. We ought to expect at least as much intellectual time and effort from them as we do from high school students writing a paper.

The solution is simple. Just dictate a certain number of words per hour. According to the internet, the average adult reads about 250 words per minute which comes out to about 15,000 words an hour. They just have to figure in how many hours a day would be fair to spend reading and they have a formula. It’s such a low bar to expect from our most powerful people. There are other benefits besides having better informed decision making. It might get bills to be written better, shorter with plain language. It might stop some of the ridiculous add-ons that are in most of our legislation. Imagine laws that regular people could understand. It would be glorious.

Now, I know this will never happen. Congress is unlikely to make rules that make their lives more difficult. And that leads to my question. I thought this was all so obvious, but some people disagreed with me. What am I missing? What are the advantages of the current system? I’d really like to know.

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