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Bill to make legislation more transparent, easier to understand (mlive.com)
65 points by paltman 860 days ago | 34 comments



This is my congressman. Here's why he's interesting:

He doesn't miss any votes, and he explains every single vote (even boring, inconsequential votes) on his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/repjustinamash

Here's an example of a boring explanation:

https://www.facebook.com/repjustinamash/posts/51291397874801...

Here's a longer explanation:

https://www.facebook.com/repjustinamash/posts/51246580545949...

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Here's an example of a boring explanation:

He explained why the vote took place. He didn't tell you why he voted for it.

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Bills are a lot easier to understand if you think of them as source code diffs. This bill is basically requiring them to provide context diffs which is actually a pretty decent idea.

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I understand the motivation but it doesn't work. The problem isn't people don't understand how a bill was made it is that they do not care what is in the bill. It isn't rocket science finding out who inserted what in a bill. Every time some piece of pork or special interest group gets something good the collective response is to shrug. No one cares.

You actually want people suggesting changes to bills at the committee stage. What happens now is that bills are written by committee members based on broad directions from leadership. The first time the bill is seen everything in the bill has been baked in the oven so to speak. What you are suggesting will drive bill making process even more underground as members are scared of suggesting unpopular changes to bills they actually support.

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They should just make a law that requires all legislation to be hosted publicly on github.

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Why would you choose a private commercial entity like Github as a host?

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1) There are people working on that.

2) How would that change anything whatsoever?

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Some people, when they find legislation hard to understand, think "I know, let's legislate to make legislation easier to understand." Now they have two problems.

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I think you might not have read the article, because the proposal is rather simple and reasonable.

Laws are often written with links to other laws that are required to understand them. Some laws are even "diffs" of other laws: "Paragraph 5 in law 65/1996 is removed, and the following paragraph is added instead: blah blah".* This means that you often need to open four or five different documents to understand a single law.

The proposal seems aimed at doing away with the links and the diffs, which sounds very reasonable.

*Note: the example is based on my country's laws (I'm not from the US so I don't read US laws), but judging from the content of the article, it seems like US laws have the same problem.

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From the article:

‘‘No Act shall be revised or amended by mere reference to it. Every bill or joint resolution which amends an existing section, subsection, or other subdivision of any Act shall set forth the section, subsection, or other subdivision sufficiently to enable the intent and effect of the bill or joint resolution to be clearly understood," the two-page bill states.

First of all, any bill that can't be understood will be struck down by the courts immediately. The "clearly understood" provision violates the principle that legislation will be precise. If the legislation lays out a supplementary principle that serves to explain it then it can't be enforced in court so it absolutely meaningless.

Congress already lays out why it passes bills in introductions. This is a political stunt and nothing more.

Law is by its very nature hard to understand especially in a common law system like ours based on precedents. There is no easy way to allow citizens to understand the law. It would be great if you could go online and clearly see

1)what the law is and sections have changed over time 2) which law led to which changes in the published statute and see how that law changed other sections

I'm working on something like that right now. Please keep in mind that making the law more accessible doesn't make it easier to understand. There are so many terms embedded in the law and the courts may not have a clear interpretation of the language yet; or different circuits have different precedents.

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Quoting a bigger part of the changed text will not make the law meaningless.

Saying "we replace '5kg of solid gold' with '3kg of solid gold'" Instead of "we replace 5 with 3 here" makes it clearer.

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In the US, the current published version of a law reflects all legislative amendments to it.

The problem is finding historical versions of the law, which usually requires historical lawbooks or access to expensive legal databases like Westlaw or Lexis which maintain historical versions of state and federal laws.

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The problem that this bill is trying to solve is in reading proposed amendments. Once an amendment passes, then we can simply look at the running copy of the main law. But, if you are trying to decide if we should pass an amendment, you (under the current system) must cross reference to every law mentioned in order to simply understand what the bill you are considering does.

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The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress already does this. In fact, it's what this particular agency was created to do.

Maybe Rep. Amash should spend more time learning about existing resources and less time passing redundant laws?

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As an not very politically active person, when I go to look up laws, I am confronted by the reference problem this bill is designed to solve. Furthermore, this bill can essentially be viewed as Congress slightly modifying their own operating procedure to make things easier for themselves (and others). They are probably the only entity in the US that needs to pass a law to change how they format documents.

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Every Congress has the ability to change any rule about how they work before the session starts.

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Slightly off topic, but this reminds me of a great talk on simplifying legislation so that law people can actually read and understand it:

http://www.ted.com/talks/alan_siegel_let_s_simplify_legal_ja...

In the talk, Alan discusses how they simplified a non-trivial set of legislation to something more like an advertising brochure. They then confirmed with appropriate lawyers that it was equivalent to the original legislation.

I would love to see a NPO or volunteer group spring up, comprised of marketers and lawyers, who retroactively applied this technique to existing laws, then published them freely.

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Isn't this more the arena of a procedural than federal law? This definitely seems more feel good than reality. I believe the court precedent is called "legislative entrenchment"[1] which seems to prevent Congress from passing these laws that "bind" future Congresses.

So, to answer the Representative's question, it would appear that courts would hold this bill unconstitutional.

[1] http://www.yalelawjournal.org/the-yale-law-journal/essay/leg...

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Minor point: Absent a constitutional amendment, I don't think the bill would be legally binding (it could, of course, establish a social norm within the Congress, enforceable by peer pressure).

Suppose that a senator or representative were to introduce a bill that didn't conform to the diff requirement. Suppose also that both houses passed the bill, and the president signed it. I don't think anyone would argue that the bill hadn't become law.

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Yup. "Congress cannot bind future Congresses" and all that. Basically any "I want to change the way Washington works!" movement is so much circle-jerking for this reason.

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Yes this is constitutional. The houses can modify their procedure through a public law. This happened in the sequester bill that established the super committee and forced an up or down vote on the debt reduction proposal. If it wasn't reconciliation would have been illegal for the past fifty years.

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You could word it like "anyone may ignore any law that doesn't conform to such and such requirements." That would be effectively binding.

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If I'm ever President, I'll veto any bill that's over two pages without reading it.

If we really need to pass a 1000-page law for the good of the country, Congress can send it to me in 500 pieces, which I can veto individually.

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That's not practical. Sometimes things need to stick together in a package, and it might be bigger than two pages. As a simple example, if you had a bill that included "Fund this new program" and "Levy this new tax to cover it", those provisions should be passed (or vetoed) together.

And the smallest reasonable package might be a lot bigger than that simple example. If you're going to patch something like, for example, the tax code, it could take you well north of a hundred pages to put together a package that coherently accomplishes what you want to. It might not be practical to break it up. There could be many complex clauses that don't accomplish what they're supposed to without the simultaneous enactment of many other complex clauses.

I'm not saying I like long and complex bills. I hate them. But recognize that law is like software (in fact, from a certain perspective, law is software). It should be kept as simple as possible, but "as simple as possible" might still be very complex.

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So, no Federal Budget during your administration. While your at it, perhaps you want to look at the actual text density on federal bills.

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Not as a monolithic bill. Modularity and delegation would be better.

The main side effect of having Congress micromanaging tens or hundreds of thousands of numbers is that everyone goes for pork. For example, everyone wants military bases in their home state. But with a smaller budget, you might just have a single item for "Military - Domestic Bases - $15 billion" (or whatever the actual number is) and let the military high command decide how many are actually necessary for national defense, where the best locations are, and whether it's better to have a lot of cheap ones everywhere or a few expensive ones in crucial locations.

And also, having a 2-year, 4-year or 8-year budget would make a lot of sense too. We can always write another law to repeal it if it's not working (or the next administration/Congress opposes the previous one's decisions), but we'll probably usually let it stand after we pass it. And it reduces waste if agencies know what they're going to get well ahead of time (especially for things like certain kinds of scientific research where you're running long-term experiments).

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"military high command decide"

No, that's what we elect congress to deal with. We do not want the "permanent undersecretary" problem showing up in the US like it has in various other governments around the world. Its bad enough much of the regulation we have to deal with was never voted on by congress after seeing what the consequences of their legislation was. That's where the money is in government and what directly affects the voters.

Congress cannot pass anything over a two year budget because that would be unconstitutional.

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Or you could re-instate the line veto?

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Legislatures run mainly on norms and customs. As people have pointed out already, no legislature can bind a future version of itself (which is why the 60-vote filibuster is unconstitutional, but I digress).

Congress could establish better customs, of course. It is customary in many nations to limit legislation to a single topic and to codify the laws on a single topic in a single published Act. For example, virtually all of the important laws relating to, say, education, might be published in an Education Act, and from time to time, a legislature would enact a new version of it, replacing the old version entirely.

This tends to make reading up on the laws (and proposed laws) much easier, and it also makes super-specific tax breaks for individual companies and things like that really stand out.

The U.S. custom of publishing bills as a list of "replace "and" in line 76422 with "or"" statements is a really poor legislative custom.

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Agreed. The states do it this way as well. I worked on updating some statutes after a legislative session and it was a nightmare. Many bills conflict with each other. Often, nobody even knows what the latest version of a statute really is. It's a joke.

In some states, such as Georgia, the public can't even read statutes! They have to buy a copy. Pay to know the law to which you are bound. How does that make any sense at all?

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In theory good parliamentary practice is not to allow conflicting motions and any consequentials should have been worked out beforehand.

Also any amendments should be relevant to the original motion - which if applied in the USA would stop a lot of the pork barrel amendments.

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I'm pretty sure that's not merely nonsensical, but actually illegal.

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Love love love this! It is precisely the kind of ideology-agnostic change that needs to start happening! Most of us argue politics in a state of almost complete ignorance. Politicians take office not knowing the first thing about the actual job itself. Ideology is a preoccupation, governing is an occupation.

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The bill should also include the fact that you can't add stuff to the bill that have nothing to do with the main topic of the bill. This happens far too often - like putting indefinite detention clauses in budget bills, and so on.

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