Really Read The Bill


Rep. Justin Amash has introduced a bill that would make it a lot easier for everyone to understand congressional legislation. The Readable Legislation Act of 2013 would require that draft legislation contain sufficient detail to make it possible to understand the effect and intent of the bill. It would impose “track changes” capability on federal legislation, where you could see how a bill would change the law.

Congressional committees already track changes¬†for legislation they report out under the Ramseyer Rule in the House and the Cordon Rule in the Senate. (Sometimes these rules are waived, although I don’t know how often.) Most legislation never makes it through committee, or skips the committee process entirely, and thus is not subject to these rules.

Track changes for legislation isn’t a new idea. Most states draft legislation this way. I’ve written about this idea before, and my friend Harlan Yu just gave a 3-minute talk on one way to make this happen at an Advisory Committee on Transparency event.

The problem in implementing a track changes (or GitHub) approach to federal law arises from the fact that much of US law is not available in an official, codified format. Much of the US Code is unofficial, and to see the actual law you need to look up each bill as passed by Congress, and then look up the bills that amended that bill, and so on. That’s an incredibly hard task. Making matters even more complicated is that many of the laws passed by Congress are not available in a free (or easy to manipulate) digital format.

While the House is working on addressing aspects of this problem, it remains a thorny issue. Perhaps legislation could be drafted in such a way that it’s easy to see how the bill would modify the US Code, even if the Code is not the law itself. A combination of markup tags and/or natural language processing would make this technologically possible, if arduous.

But to make this work, legislation may need to be drafted two different ways — once to amend the actual law and a second time to reflect changes to the Code — which would impose a significant burden on legislative counsel, especially as legislation can go through multiple drafts on a single bill. It might also reveal when the law and the Code don’t agree. And as legislation is not all crafted by a centralized drafting office, particular in the Senate, this may require some culture changes in how legislation is written. That’s a tall order.

Just because this would be difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. All the time we see provisions inserted into legislation that no one realizes is there until after the bill has passed. This is unacceptable. The elimination of one of these Easter eggs could pay back Congress for the cost of implementing a better change tracking system. Rep. Amash proposes implementing this requirement for January 2015. That is a worthy goal.