Senators Need to Stop Voting on Stuff About Which They Know Next to Nothing

Two cannibals are eating a big dinner. One says to the other, “You know, I really can’t stand my mother-in-law.” His friend shrugs and offers the solution: “Then just stick with the salad.”

For too long, policy types in Washington, everyone from the elected (senators) to the appointed (Cabinet ministers) to the disappointed (journalists) has taken this approach to reading legislation. Those bills are not very tasty fare, so some aide gives us a word from the sponsor and we all run with it. More often than not, as they say in Pamplona, we are running with the bull.

In fact, we find ourselves falling for what I like to call “debate and switch.” We buy the synopsis in the senator’s press release, claiming that the bill says X. Then we argue if X is good or X is bad, but ours not to reason Y. In the end it turns out the law we thought was, say, making a three-strikes-you’re-out rule for federal prison was actually full of ways to foul off the two-strike pitch.

Still, by the time the Supreme Court reveals all the hidden mischief, a decade has usually passed. We are so consumed by our new x to grind that we have no time to revisit the Y Plantation. The old saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again, shame on me.” Yet we all keep going back to the well, the same well that has poisoned us many times.

Our most recent experience, with the immigration bill currently on the table, has been a real shocker. This time, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has read the bill, every passage, before passage. He survived the ordeal, bleary of eye but clear of vision. And what a tale he has brought back, in these pages and on talk radio. The so-called illegal immigration bill turns out to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing: it’s mostly about legal immigration. It includes provisions that were set to quintuple our annual crop of new citizens … without any national discussion beforehand.

This is the worst such boondoggle since Hillary’s health-care proposal. Elizabeth McCaughey of the Manhattan Institute had the novel idea of actually slogging through the prose (for lack of a better word). When the dust cleared, the Hill ran for the hills from Hill’s plan, and Dr. McCaughey enjoyed a somewhat ill-advised honorarium: one free term as lieutenant governor of New York.

Now that we have crossed this border once again, even as Rector scrambles to rectify before they certify, it is time to draw a conclusion. No more. Or, perhaps more aptly, no mas. We need remedial reading. Not being forewarned is like getting a forearm from a running back. Ignorance is not bliss. Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We have seen the last of the red-hot loafers. No more legal ease; it’s time to wrestle with the legalese. Gotta do our reading and not get railroaded.

In all seriousness, I would like to issue a call. Let the word go forth from this time and place. A mechanism must be put into place, effective immediately, assuring that all pending legislation will be scrutinized word-for-word and a précis made available. It seems to me that this should be the province of the conservative think tanks, who could form a sort of coalition to assign sections to individual fellows and scholars. When they finish reading, they could issue a collaborative report, at least for the purpose of clarifying what it’s all about.

As often occurs when such joint projects are undertaken, this will likely have the auxiliary effect of bringing the various foundations and institutes into better working relationships. It may also have the tertiary effect of giving their work greater exposure in ways that enhance their ability to reach a broader audience and raise funds from a wider array of sources. But first and foremost, our primary concept applies: we must assure that no law is ever again passed as the result of members of Congress voting on stuff about which they knew next to nothing.

This would also bring greater transparency to the process, better enabling the ordinary citizen to know what the politicians are cooking up. When people are aware of what is being voted on, they have ways of getting their point across. Which brings us back to cannibalism. In 1950, Victor Biaka-Boda, representing the Ivory Coast in the French Senate, went home to visit his constituents and never returned: they ate him. Here in America the electorate is gentler. They would just eat his lunch.