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The Pointlessness of Reading Bills

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Pointlessness of Reading Bills"

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When congress passes very thick pieces of legislation, it’s common to hear opponents complain that members haven’t even read the bill they’re voting on. I do think it’s important that members inform themselves about the content of legislation and consider their votes in a serious way. But it can’t be emphasized enough that actually reading legislative language isn’t going to help anyone understand what a bill does. Kevin Carey, for example, does us all a favor by summarizing several provisions of the stimulus related to state use of education assistance funds and then plays a prank by directly quoting one provision:

They will, and here I quote directly, “comply with the requirements of paragraphs (3)(C)(ix) and (6) of section 1111(b) of the ESEA (20 U.S.C. 6311(b)) and section 612(a)(16) of the IDEA (20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(16)) related to the inclusion of children with disabilities and limited English proficient students in State assessments, the development of valid and reliable assessments for those students, and the provision of accommodations that enable their participation in State assessments” as well as “comply with section 1111(b)(8)(C) of the ESEA (20 U.S.C. 6311(b)(8)(C)) in order to address inequities in the distribution of highly qualified teachers between high- and low-poverty schools, and to ensure that low-income and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.

I know enough about this issue to know that ESEA is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law authorizing federal financial assistance to schools whose most recent instantiation is also known as No Child Left Behind. IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which is, as per the title, related to education of people (“individuals” to make the acronym work) with disabilities. And a real expert perhaps knows what section 1111(b) and section 612(a)(16) are, but I certainly don’t. And neither do members of congress. If you want the members to understand what the law does, you don’t want them wasting time reading the bill. You need to let specialists read the bill and summarize it in real English. Then members—and the public, for that matter—can read the summaries and ask questions.

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