"How A Bill Becomes A Law, Unfortunately" by Justin Amash
How a Bill Becomes a Law, Unfortunately
by Justin Amash
The legislator’s job is to use independent thought and consistent principles to assess each bill before voting. To do it right is difficult work. The great majority of legislators fall back on shortcuts—accepting the say-so of their colleagues, lobbyists, and legislative staff or voting with minimal thought along party lines. I am committed to the right process, and the trust I have earned among my colleagues on both sides of the aisle proves it. For example, I have had more floor amendments gaveled onto legislation by the Democratic majority than any other Republican in the state House. Republicans and Democrats frequently seek my advice on how to improve the language of bills.
1. Trust Yourself
Legislators have a duty not to give up their independent judgment to anyone, no matter how trusted. In practice, however, most legislation is the product of group-think with little independent analysis. The fact that a bill has many co-sponsors does not necessarily mean that the bill has been carefully vetted. Most legislators agree to co-sponsor a bill because they like the bill’s general purpose or to show support for a colleague, even when they have no real knowledge of the bill’s details. In fact, the primary sponsor of a bill may not be fully aware of the bill's details, because legislation is typically drafted by lobbyists, lawyers, and professional bill drafters, not legislators.
Typically, legislation receives a committee hearing before the full chamber votes. Committees are intended to take testimony from interested parties and carefully scrutinize language to avoid unintended consequences. Unfortunately, comprehensive consideration is rare. Consumers are rarely represented; large corporations and special interests who can afford lobbyists are over-represented. Poor legislation, unreasonably tilted in favor of one group or filled with errors, is often passed out of committee.
2. So Many Bills, So Little Time
Many thousands of bills, resolutions, and amendments are introduced by legislators during each legislative term. Most never come up for a vote. This makes reading every potential piece of legislation a terribly inefficient use of time—and effectively impossible. My practice is to read every piece of legislation scheduled for a vote, as listed on the published agenda. Most legislators, however, read a small fraction of the bills on the agenda.
When evaluating legislation, I first look to see if it is constitutional. If not, I stop. I cannot vote for something that is unconstitutional, no matter how well intentioned. I then look to see if the proposed law would move us further in the direction of limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. A bill does not have to be perfect for me to support it, as long as it tends to move in the direction of my principles. I also consider unintended consequences. Failing to read legislation carefully (or simply relying on a summary) leads to poor public policy, such as the Michigan Business Tax, which was passed with substantial Republican support.
3. “Yes” means “I’m Sure”
As legislators, we owe it to our constituents not to change society’s rules without careful deliberation. When legislation comes up for a vote, I make every effort to read the language in its entirety before voting. Too often, however, a vote is taken minutes (or even seconds) after a bill comes to the floor. Formally, there is a requirement that a bill be available for five days, but this has little practical effect, because legislators do not know which of the hundreds or thousands of introduced bills will come up for a vote when leadership chooses to stray from the agenda. Moreover, the entire procedure can be circumvented by last-minute amendments.
When we are not given enough time to understand a bill completely, the responsible approach is to vote no. (It is not permissible to abstain in the Michigan Legislature unless the legislator can identify a conflict of interest.) Voting “no” does not necessarily mean “I disagree with this bill.” It often means, “I cannot in good conscience change society’s rules without more information.” Voting no when I do not have enough information is the right decision even if it later turns out that the law would have been a good one. We can always pass new legislation, but it is very difficult to fix or undo legislation that has already passed. The problem is compounded when legislation has a misleading, but appealing, title, like, “An Act to Prohibit Human Trafficking.” The legislation may be well intentioned but poorly drafted in ways that will harm innocent people and prevent just outcomes. We should not pass legislation like this lightly, because the errors will probably never be fixed—no legislator wants to be seen as attempting to “weaken” a law with a politically appealing title. Good public policy requires extensive and careful deliberation, not a rush to pass any legislation to give the appearance that legislators are busy and effective.
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