Friday, July 17, 2009

Reading (Bills) is Fundamental

By now, everyone who pays attention to how the US Congress operates knows that many bills are passed into law without most Congressmen having actually read what they voted for. I was listening to KMBZ's Scott Parks explaining why Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO5), being one of the few members of Congress who is not a lawyer, might have to rely upon a staff member who is one, to read bills on his behalf and tell him what they mean.

I was gobsmacked. Cleaver has a Master of Divinity degree and is an ordained minister. That means he has more education than the average US citizen. If the laws enacted by Congress are impossible for such a man to understand, how can the rest of us, who must obey those laws, understand them well enough to do so? The entire point of a "government of laws, not of men" is that the law will be well known and understood by the people it governs, so that those people can live their lives free of the threat of force being imposed upon them.

Just as our constitution explicitly forbids ex post facto laws (which criminalize past acts, which were legal when they were committed) and Bills of Attainder (which legislatively declare guilt, without benefit of a trial), I believe legislation beyond the reading comprehension required of those expected to obey it is unconstitutional. The constitution also protects the right to trial by jury, which at the time it was adopted would have implied a random selection of people of the community in which the crime is alleged to have taken place. The Framers were well aware of the jury in Zenger nullifying a law they considered unjust. I believe it is a reasonable assumption that a jury so empowered would also acquit someone charged with violating a confusing law.

Unfortunately, judges and prosecutors conspire to deprive jurors of their inherent power. Perhaps an amendment is in order. I'd prefer one explicitly enumerating jury nullification, but I'd take this as a consolation prize: No law may be enacted that is beyond the comprehension required of high-school graduates, except if it only applies to certain industries, in which case it might apply technical language that is common knowledge in those industries.


  1. The thought that an educated person needs to have the proposed legislation explained to him is flooring. One of the big issues requiring that the legislation be understandable to high-school graduates is the seemingly large numbers of people graduating from high-school with a reading comprehension of a sixth-grader or less.

  2. Hmm... maybe one of the esteemed readers of this site can answer this one for me, because it dovetails with the main point above: One of the many confusing things about many of the Bills I have looked over, is that quite a few portions are not written as complete paragraphs or sections, they instead say that some portion of a sentence of a section in a previous law is being amended so that several words are being replaced with several other words, changing the scope or meaning of the previous law.

    Does anyone know what process is required to find out what the ultimate, current wording is of any law that has gone through these kinds of amendment? That in itself would seem to mitigate heavily against being able to understand many of the laws on the books.

  3. Now, that is a stretch... However, it does prove that we need to teach reading comprehension more. Here's a great self-directed set of reading comprehension strategies:

  4. Ah, the wonders of Spam. Guy takes the time to sign in to make a comment that has only passing relevance to the post, just so he can pimp for himself. Sheesh.

  5. Great post! Keep up the outstanding work!!

    ps. Link Exchange??

  6. Mark Twain on Congressmen:

    Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.
    - What Is Man?

    ...the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.
    - Letter fragment, 1891

    “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
    - Mark Twain, a Biography

    Congressman is the trivialist distinction for a full grown man.
    - Notebook #14, 11/1877 - 7/1878

    All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.
    - Mark Twain's Autobiography; also in Mark Twain in Eruption

    The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing, that when it strikes a thing it doesn't leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether--Well, you'd think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there.
    - Mark Twain's Speeches, "The Weather"

    It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
    - Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar

    It is the foreign element that commits our crimes. There is no native criminal class except Congress.
    - More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

    ...I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature, Congressman.
    - "Foster's Case", New York Tribune, 3/10/1873


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