Congressmen Should Read the Bills They Vote On? Why?

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)

Rep. John Conyers, the second most senior member of the House of Representatives [having been there since 1964], and chairman of the Judiciary Committee [which oversees the Department of Justice and the federal court system], made a fascinating admission last week. In response to concerns by American citizens that Congress was passing bills without reading them, he responded at the National Press Club by saying:

What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?

So then, according to the esteemed representative, members of Congress should just go ahead and vote on bills they haven’t read? Just rely on the summaries your staff gives you? Don’t do any work yourself in trying to figure out what’s in the bills? And why the rush of less than two days? Shouldn’t representatives take more time—as much as is necessary—to understand what they are voting on? And two lawyers to then tell you what it really means? I have a unique idea: write a bill that is shorter and that makes sense without needing extra lawyers.

I know. Too simple.

Rep. Conyers should be embarrassed by his statement. But he wasn’t. He comes from a safe district that isn’t going to throw him out no matter what he does. It’s the ultimate in job security. It’s also the ultimate in irresponsibility.

What’s happened to the role of legislator? Aren’t those supposed to be the people we entrust with evaluating the wisdom of proposed legislation and then make their decisions based on that evaluation? Nowadays, it’s just a matter of voting as your party leaders tell you, whether you know what’s going on or not.

Coolidge: Man of Few Words, but Words That Are Worth Hearing
Coolidge: Man of Few Words–But Good Ones

I like what Calvin Coolidge said about the role of elected representatives. Coolidge is probably one of the most underestimated and unappreciated presidents of the 20th century. He was well known for brevity in his speeches. Brevity is fine; it’s what you say in those few words that matter. And he often made excellent points. Here’s Coolidge’s wisdom on legislation and the role of representatives:

We have too much legislating by clamor, by tumult, by pressure. Representative government ceases when outside influence of any kind is substituted for the judgment of the representative. . . .

This does not mean that the opinion of constituents is to be ignored. It is to be weighed most carefully, for the representative must represent, but his oath provides that it must be “faithfully and agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Constitution and laws.” Opinions and instructions do not outmatch the Constitution. Against it they are void.

Where are those kinds of representatives? They exist. We need to seek them out and encourage them to remain faithful to their calling.