School House Rock – The Seedy Underbelly

Photo image of the national capitol - Capitol Hill at night

by Paul Hamlin


 

School House Rock

Remember the “School House Rock” on how a bill becomes a law?  It was a part of my childhood and it is how many of us were introduced to the function of our legislators and legislation.  In case you are not of my generation take a look here: 

illustration of a newly sponsored bill sitting on the steps to the Capitol. - Bill becomes a law
School House Rock taught a generation about how a bill became a law

Well, it turns out there was some missing information in “School House Rock”, and it is obviously devastating to some of us.  The writing of a bill and its passage into law, is much more nefarious and shadowed than that little scrap of paper sitting on the steps of the Capitol Building told us.

These steps take our idealistic process and subvert it, caress it to meet Party needs, and mold bills into monstrous behemoth legislation that is not everything we would want it to be.

Who Wrote the Bill?

Most of the bills that are introduced in our Congress are sponsored and co-sponsored by our esteemed Congress people.  They place their name upon the bill, verifying that they are in full accord with the bill.

The catch?  The majority of bills aren’t even written by our representatives, they are written by 3rd party lawyers, lobbyists, or bureaucrats of the government.

Our elected officials play a nominal role in drafting bills for consideration.  Proof of that can be seen in the language used in the bills. Language is “legalese” and often too dense for most politicians to even comprehend, or it will take more time to read the language for comprehension than most people are willing or able to dedicate to that endeavor.

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

– John Godfrey Saxe

That process is not completed, as the bill (not written by our elected officials) goes to committee, where it will get “marked up”.  This process is the negotiation phase of hostage management, where the bill becomes hostage to the varying warring factions, and they start adding additional language to get what they desire out of the bill.

So, who writes the amendments?  You probably guessed, the attorneys or third party vendors from each side of the issue.  Lobbyists rule the day in the writing process, and in order for a bill to make it out of committee, every lobbyist wants to put their mark on it.

For proof of this, try reading a bill that has made it out of committee.  Compare these to the plainly written language from past bills, including amendments to our Constitution.  All said and done, rarely do our representatives actually get overly involved in the actual writing of the bill, they may supply large, overarching ideas, but rarely put pen to paper.

Worse still, many of these bills (even the massive spending bills or healthcare bills) are written with enormous gaps.  They don’t answer questions, they create new ones.  They don’t address issues, they open up new ones.  They (lobbyists and bureaucrats) intentionally leave issues open, so that they have authority to “fill in the blanks” later.

Who Reads the Bill?

Since these bills are not written by our “lawmakers” and the lobbyists seem to have the power of the pen, thank goodness that the legislators read and vote on the bill based on their educated understanding of the bill….right?

No, sorry – a large percentage of bills are written, amended and moved to a vote without our representatives actually having read the bill!  Sure, they have staffers reading sections and passing along their “cliff notes”, and their political party gives them some talking points about the merits or failures of the bill…but the legislator doesn’t know anything above or beyond these synopses.

Large and cumbersome bills are many times written, moved through committee and put up for a vote without knowing what is in the bill, or understanding any addendum to the bill.  They are moved quickly to the floor, it prevents the opposition time from forming talking points or opposition.  It is a shell game played by legislators, lobbyist and bureaucrats to “win” for their side.

Does it matter anyway? Going back to the idea that the legislator doesn’t write the bill, they are often not easily understood anyway. That’s right, the legislators can’t even understand the language they are voting for or against.

Many times after a bill is introduced it will take “think tanks” days, weeks, or even months to unwind the language of the bill.  If these policy experts are handcuffed and perplexed over the length and language, how will our elected officials really understand it?

Well we can be thankful that there is still one more step in the process…after the writing, negotiation and movement between the two legislative bodies, the President gets to decide whether to veto it or not!  This is the last step, the final protection to the system, it gives hope…or does it? 

A simple question, if our legislators do not or can not read a bill, do we have any conceivable reason to believe that the President does?

Who Administers the Law?

When you write convoluted and ambiguous bills into laws, blanks must be filled in.  In many cases those blanks are left intentionally blank…so that they can be filled in later.  What does that look like?

list of the number of pages filed in the Federal Register annually - Impact of bureaucracy
Pages of new regulations added every year

Thousands, tens of thousands, of pages are being added to the Federal Register every single year. As blanks are filled in the application and execution of laws are being changed and implemented.  The legislator does not touch this process, our ELECTED officials do not actually know how the laws they are passing will be implemented. 

This process is done behind the scenes in a cubicle in a dark federal building by someone who writes regulations that change our lives for a living.

With this immense pressure to implement and execute on these laws the number of bureaucrats in the federal system is enormous.  While the number has leveled off over the past several years the number of federal bureaucrats still stands at an amazing 2.6 million people.  This number, however, is a bit deceiving because this does not include hired advisors

These are lobbyist groups or legislative experts that may number as high as 7.5 million people, which was all in an effort to show the American people that the payroll of the federal government has remained unchanged or shrinking. It’s a shell game.

These are people, that we have not elected.  These are people who set the direction of our nation through the writing of regulations without the knowledge of the American people.

What are We to Expect

  1. Write the Bill – our legislators should be responsible for writing the first draft and entering it for archiving. This bill can be used to build additional framework, but it remains the skeleton.
  2. End Add-ons – stop adding to complexity of a bill by adding additional provisions, additional spending or filler to garner more votes. A bill should be a stand alone.
  3. Read the Bill – when the framework has been added to the original “legislators” draft, get the entire bill into the hands of legislators and start a clock. Based on the length of the bill set an amount of time before a vote occurs.
  4. Accountability – constituents should expect their legislators to explain their vote, whether it is through a blog, a written statement or a video of the explanation. Those legislators who are unwilling to explain every vote should be held accountable for not being answerable to the people.
  5. Bureaucratic Accountability – prior to enacting any law, the framework for implementation should be completed and this framework should come before both legislative bodies for deliberation, debate and agreement.
  6. Remove Lobbyist – only legislators and their staff should be immediately involved with the drafting and writing of the legislation, the deliberation of the framework.Lobbyist will need to only lobby legislators, not write bills.
  7. Transparency – bills should clearly delineate what enumerated power of Congress, according to the Constitution, it addresses. Also a bill should be scored by the CBO and other financial think tanks to show the cost of the bill and implementation. Any financial obligations should be shown in a clear ledger style for ease of reading.  Last but not least, there should be an analysis as to what the return of investment of the bill is to the American people (jobs, financial return, business impact, etc).

Why do we expect any less? Why do we continue to allow our system to be broken, and hold no one to account for the malfeasance?  We owe it to the nation to place rules and expectations on our legislators.  Time to make some changes.      

(Paul Hamlin is running for US House of Representatives as an independent candidate in New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District.  You can find out more about him and his candidacy at paulhamlin.com)

 

Further reading:

https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2017/12/12/good-question-bill-congress/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/10/googles-ceo-the-laws-are-written-by-lobbyists/63908/

https://www.usnews.com/opinion/thomas-jefferson-street/articles/2017-05-05/trumpcares-not-unusual-members-of-congress-often-dont-read-bills

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-spending-20180323-story.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/06/20/new-legislative-virus-spreads-hide-the-bill-dont-read-it-fill-in-the-blanks-later/#1f359e5457f3

https://spectator.org/55475_twenty-years-non-stop-regulation/

https://www.federalregister.gov/reader-aids/understanding-the-federal-register/federal-register-statistics

http://www.uky.edu/~jafine2/bureaucracy.htm

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2 Thoughts to “School House Rock – The Seedy Underbelly”

  1. Ellen Elmore

    This all sounds great and I agree with every word of it. But you are dreaming if you think Congress or the President will ever do any of this. It takes way too much time and they are busy preparing for their next election. Trump already is already campaigning for 2020. Congress is campaigning for this year and 2020.

    1. And that is why our votes matter. It is time to elect ethical, well-reasoned leaders to Congress…those that will stand in the gap and look for solutions. That means stepping away from these political parties that feign concern, and stab the people in the back.

      If we keep saying, “this is a dream”, we will excuse this behavior. The truth is we need to stand up and be heard. This type of behavior by our employees is untoward, unscrupulous and unwanted, yet we keep electing them.

      We deserve better.

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