Democracy Is Dead: What’s So Funny about “Read the Bill”?

“Lawmakers, read the bills before you vote,” by Jeff Jacoby (Boston Globe)

This “Read the Bills” movement has finally cut through political pretensions to reveal that there is no “deliberative democracy” in the USA. Apparently, members of Congress are simply asked to “react” or express “feelings” or channel interest-group concerns about broad notions like global warming, the economy, energy, and so on.

Not that democracy is an unalloyed good, but words ought to mean what they say. Otherwise, William Graham Sumner was right about “public servants” throwing the Constitution overboard:

If you take away the Constitution, what is American liberty and all the rest? Nothing but a lot of phrases. . . .

Any member of Congress who refuses, then “guffaws,” at the notion of “reading bills” is a candidate for expulsion from Congress. “Aye, there’s the rub”: who will read the bill of particulars against the scoundrel who presumes to speak in the name of “the people?” Who but his fellow scoundrels, who have continually mocked thoughtful, active, ongoing deliberation?

The Waxman-Markey bill (mentioned in above article) is a perfect example of the oligarchy in D.C.: fancy preambles with flights of prose followed by blank pages to be filled in later by a few “leaders” of Congress.

My worst students cannot read, write, or put together an extended argument for a position. In place of reason or analysis, they offer “feeling” or what they are told third-hand. To wit: They are perfect future congressmen (women) of America.

The best history students grapple with the primary stuff of history, its original intent, changing meaning, and significance. In the future, what can they “read” in between the pages of congressional acts? They cannot assume anything when few people had anything to do with the bill, and obscure bureaucrats file enabling regulations that carry enormous significance for future generations, all hidden from public view.

I’m sure we will be told that “Read the Bill” is not “on the up-and-up.” Right wingers must be behind it because they want to slow down the work of Congress. Leave aside the bare fact that Congress is not working and we still have ample exhibits of “right-wing” laws (e.g., USA PATRIOT Act) that sprang surprises on the Left because “we don’t read those things.”

I have researched the papers of men and women in nine presidential libraries, along with the records of many congressional committees. What impresses me is how little the White House and Congress know about the functioning of government. Some say that government has become too big to be safe (the Left) or efficient (the Right). I say government has become too big for democracy. If that is true, why bother voting? Heresy, but there is an argument for “those who refuse to vote.” (See Carl Watner and Wendy McElroy’s The Dissenting Electorate).

In short, our long march into oligarchy reminds me of the Old Whig slogan (I am working from memory):

“Man is free on election day, and everywhere in chains between elections.”

Further reading:

The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States (1969), by Theodore J. Lowi, offers a stinging and cogent critique of congressional abdication of its constitutional responsibilities, both by refusing to properly deliberate and by simply handing the task of governing over to staff and unelected bureaucrats.

Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Decline of American Liberalism (1955, rpt. 2008)

Robert Higgs, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society (2004)

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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