December 21, 2017

More Legislative Reforms

The passage of the Republicans’ tax bill is a complete lesson in how not to create new laws. Nothing about the process that resulted in the passing of this bill can be viewed as desirable, reasonable, or moral. Readers of this blog are likely to accept that as self-evident fact, so I won’t belabor the point.

About three weeks ago, I suggested that Senators and Representatives should actually read the bills on which they vote. (See A Commonsense Legislative Reform.) In this essay, I want to suggest two additional reforms that, though radical, would likely produce better laws and perhaps even better lawmakers.

Reform 1

Every word in a bill should be formally attributed to a particular legislator.

Moreover, if a single word is changed—often a significant matter—that change should be attributed to someone. Crafting a bill is sometimes a committee effort, but someone needs to take responsibility for the words on paper. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to ascribe some text to more than one person, but to attribute it to a large number of legislators would militate against the strict accountability this proposal attempts to create. Voters should know when their representatives are responsible for particular provisions.

This reform is especially aimed at making legislators accountable for last-minute changes to a bill done to help special interests. Such small last-minute changes have a way of sneaking under the legislative radar. The reform would, of course, have more general beneficial effects.

In times past, my suggestion might have been impractical. Computers, however, can hyperlink text in various ways to facilitate this reform.

Reform 2

Each individual provision of a bill should be accompanied by (1) a statement of the issue or problem it purports to address and (2) an explanation of how the particular provision is expected to improve the state of affairs described in the aforementioned statement.

This proposed reform is the more important one. Admittedly, it would be onerous to implement, and it would be useless if the rationales demanded were not required at a very low level. One might go even further, making explicit the overall purpose of a bill and requiring that all provisions address the problems and expected outcomes of the bill generally.

The benefits of this reform are legion. As does my first suggested reform, this one improves accountability. Moreover, it encourages debate about the actual mechanics of a provision, as opposed to mere assertions that one provision is “better” or “worse” than another. It is therefore likely to result in better and more transparent legislation and more edifying debate in the halls of Congress. The required expected outcome provides a standard against which the empirical results of the bill-become-law may be measured. This feedback would encourage the repeal of bad or ineffective laws and the improvement of good or effective ones. Documenting the problems being solved and the mechanisms by which legislation attempts to provide solutions would surely slow down the legislative machinery. Given our recent congressional experience, that would seem not to be a bad thing.


Thomas B. Edsall has provided a depressing analysis of the just-passed tax bill in The New York Times. (See “You Cannot Be Too Cynical About the Republican Tax Bill.”) In it, he points out that some provisions were inserted for the benefit of particular legislators, but, often, one cannot tell this for sure. Additionally, some provisions of the bill have no obvious rationale, and different parts of the bill may actually operate in different directions. My proposals, particularly the second one, assays to head off such anomalies.

Of course, the bill in question was produced by a totally rogue process, and, if Republicans are allowed to get away with this kind of law-making, our democracy is doomed. We can and must do better.

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