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OUR OPINION: Up against the wall, nonreader

The idea has grass-roots, populist appeal: Lawmakers should read their bills in full before voting on them. Well, "of course" they should. So, why not force them to do so by law? Because as every effort to legislate virtue has shown, the hand of ...

The idea has grass-roots, populist appeal: Lawmakers should read their bills in full before voting on them.

Well, "of course" they should. So, why not force them to do so by law?

Because as every effort to legislate virtue has shown, the hand of the state is a heavy and imprecise tool. And if it wanders on two big fingers through the Capitol looking to grab nonreaders by the collar and shake them, it'll knock over lots of statuary, some of which will be expensive or impossible to replace.

On Tuesday, supporters of a ballot measure that requires lawmakers to read bills turned in a draft of their proposal to the secretary of state.

"The measure says lawmakers have to certify that they've read a bill before they vote to approve it," The Associated Press reported.

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"Finished versions of bills also have to be posted on the Internet for at least four days before there's a final vote. Bills dealing with natural disasters or state security are exempted from the four-day requirement."

One of the next steps likely will be a petition drive. The measure needs the signatures of at least 12,844 North Dakota voters to be put on the ballot for a statewide vote.

In this case, voters should think twice about signing because technical questions call the measure's practicality into doubt.

For example:

The North Dakota Constitution limits the legislative session to 80 days. According to one critic of the "Read the Bill" measure, some 1,128 bills and resolutions were introduced in the 2008 session, totaling 3,457 pages.

One of the strengths and charms of the North Dakota Legislature is that every bill that goes to a committee gets a vote on the House or Senate floor. Unlike Congress, lawmakers can't tie up bills endlessly in committee. So, the "Read the Bill" law, if passed, would have had lawmakers in 2009 read at least 43 pages a day.

Or, in reality, several times that number of pages on many days, because lawmakers don't arrive in Bismarck to find a stack of finished bills waiting on their desks. First, the bills get heard by committees; that process takes days or weeks. Then the House and Senate each vote on its own bills by "crossover," the halfway point, at which point the bills that pass go to the other chamber.

The result would be periods before "crossover" and toward the end of the session in which lawmakers would have to read hundreds and hundreds of pages a day.

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And even that wouldn't be the toughest problem. The toughest problem probably would be that as bills evolve and are amended, they may be in "final form" any number of different times. After every amendment, would each new version of the bill have to be posted online for four days? (And be read again by lawmakers, presumably.)

The answer seems to be yes. But in that case, given the likelihood of a "post online, wait four days, amend; post online, wait four days, amend" cycle, it's hard to see how the new law could square with the session's 80-day time limit.

As conservatives should be the first to admit, there are some things that adults should be left to work out for themselves. The process of learning about legislation is one. And just as lawmakers shouldn't micromanage North Dakotans' lives, North Dakotans shouldn't micromanage lawmakers' lives.

Things work better in a grown-up atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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