“If a bill is too big to read, it's a good sign you shouldn't be passing it. Rule by anonymous technocrats is a form of tyranny, however benign.” —Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn believes that every legislator should be required to read in its entirety any bill upon which he or she votes. One of his readers took issue with this stance (here):
“Every CEO in the country, including Ronald Reagan as President, reads executive summaries of important documents. The idea that any Senator has to read an entire bill is nonsense. He needs staff not only to read it but to relate how items on page 3 relate to provisions on page 1009. Did George Bush read every line of the bills he signed? Bill Clinton signed Welfare reform and I bet he did not read the final bill (though to be fair he is wonky enough to have read a lot of it). What is true is that without time there is no way staff could read it and draft the necessary critiques for Senatorial review but this “He hasn’t read the bill stuff” is stupidity not some great insight.”
Steyn completely disagrees with this line of thought. He replies that a senator “is not a CEO — notwithstanding the vast Gulf Emir-sized retinue to which he has become accustomed.”
“He doesn't run anything. He has no payroll to make, no contracts to fulfill, no deliveries to expedite. A legislator is elected to legislate — so, if he doesn't read the law before he makes it law, he's not doing the only job he has.”
That last comment is worth serious consideration. This raises a couple of questions.
  • What precisely is it that we hire legislators to do?
  • How well do they actually perform these tasks?
Steyn suggests that if the legislator is using other parties to do the only job they are hired to do, the legislator is of little value. Besides, transferring the main tasks of the job to technocrats, as noted in the quote at the top of this post, is a form of tyranny.

Another of Steyn’s readers writes in to remind that “Congress passed the onerous Sarbanes-Oxley on the premise there needed to be a new law requiring CEOs to read their financial statements and personally face legal penalties in case there are errors.” What could be more appropriate than making them take their own medicine?

Steyn drolly notes that Sarbanes-Oxley was “Another hastily drawn piece of must-pass-now legislation that's done wonders for our overseas competitors.”

I fully subscribe to the concept that no legislator should be permitted to vote on any piece of legislation that she or he has not personally read in its entirety. Another philosophy is that no bill should exceed 10 pages in 12-point font with one-inch margins.

The main idea here is to make sure that those we elect to represent us in making laws are fully aware of what they are voting on. The hope is that this would cause more serious deliberation. It would also necessarily slow the pace of legislation. While some see that in a negative light, many think that less legislation coming out of Washington and our state capitals would produce an overall public good.

But the law of unintended consequences applies everywhere. One possible side effect would be to push more policy out of the realm of elected legislators and into the already expansive realm of unelected appointees that enjoy far too much arbitrary power. It would be easy. Bills would simply be filled with statements like, “With specific regulations to be determined by the Department of ….” After all, politicians are nothing if not inventive of ways to avoid taking responsibility.

You could try to draft policy that would take these things into consideration, but it would likely exceed the 10-page length limit mentioned above. There is simply no satisfactory substitute for a culture of individual liberty that regards the aggregation of coercive powers with tremendous suspicion.

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