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Make them read the bills they pass

Wagner, Scott | Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I just thought my loyal readers would like to know that this is my fifth column. Hopefully my reference will not be held against me too much.

I would like, with my fifth column, to bring to your attention a new idea that has been conceived by the DownsizeDC Foundation. DownsizeDC is a libertarian Internet organization dedicated to shrinking the size of government bureaucracy through grassroots lobbying and was founded by Jim Babka, Steve Dasbach, Perry Willis and former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne. Their idea is not necessarily a libertarian idea; it is not bi-partisan, tri-partisan or even dodeca-partisan. It is, to put it simply, common sense.

DownsizeDC is promoting a bill called the Read the Bills Act (RTBA). It is exactly what it sounds like. It would require every member of Congress to read every single bill that is up for consideration before voting.

Why is such a bill necessary? We elect our leaders to adequately represent us and to preserve our Constitution. Do these same honest, hard-working politicians actually vote for bills without reading them?

Yes, of course they do.

Last year, several major pieces of legislation totaled more than 2,900 pages. These atrocities authorized the spending of more than $1 trillion (that’s “trillion” with a “t”) of taxpayers’ money, and a grand total of 48 hours were allotted for Congress members to read these bills.

That is only 1,450 pages per day!

And let us not forget one embarrassing episode in which the massive 2004 omnibus spending bill (the existence of which should be embarrassing enough for Republican leadership) contained a provision allowing Republican Party officials to have unrestricted access to the income tax returns of any person in America. After signing the bill into law, no one in the Republican Party knew who had written this delightfully Nazi-esque piece of legislation.

As with any expansive bureaucracy, accountability is lost somewhere in the paperwork. In “On Violence” (which I skimmed over fall break – yes, for fun), German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt addresses the idea of bureaucracy as “rule by nobody.” That is, when there is no real responsibility, decisions are diffused throughout the organization. No one is truly accountable for the actions of the group, as no one person actually made the decision in the first place. Such is our government.

Our laws are written by special interest groups, and our politicians do not know what the bills contain before they vote. It is almost beyond comprehension. Even the Patriot Act, which is 340 pages, was given only 72 hours to be reviewed. It passed with an overwhelming majority and even received the seal of approval from Democratic Senator John Kerry – who of course opposed much of what was in the bill after it had already passed, just in time for the presidential election.

America needs the Read the Bills Act. We cannot allow such “legislation without representation” anymore.

The RTBA would require that every bill, along with every amendment, “must be read in its entirety before a quorum in both the House and Senate.” Once the reading is complete, every single member of Congress “must sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she has attentively either personally read, or heard read, the complete bill to be voted on.” The same is true for the renewal of laws under sunset provisions. Every bill must also be posted on the Internet “at least 7 days before a vote,” thereby allowing for greater public scrutiny of legislation.

Any bill that is passed without satisfying these requirements would “render the measure null and void, and establish grounds for the law to be challenged in court,” so the politicians would suddenly find themselves legally accountable to American citizens.

Finally, my favorite part of the bill: “Congress cannot waive these requirements.”

The RTBA could potentially put a stop to “log-rolling” and the secret addition of last-minute provisions to bills. The RTBA could slow down the growth of government, and perhaps even curb the horrific spending we have seen in recent years. It could, at the very least, give politicians a guilty conscience as they continue voting for such legislative monstrosities.

Check out DownsizeDC’s website at www.downsizedc.org. One can quickly log in and send a prewritten letter to one’s representatives urging them to support the RTBA. It is completely worth the five minutes it takes.

The RTBA is a great first step towards fixing the mess in Washington. The next step is to stop electing politicians who disgrace the Constitution, waste taxpayers’ money and vote for bills they have not read.

However, we’ll take it one step at a time.

Scott Wagner is the president of the brand new College Libertarians Club and writes political satire for the Web site The Enduring Vision. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.