Making Good Laws

How would a congress work, that is made up of us ordinary people willing and able to take care of our own affairs, as the founders intended? How would we make good laws?

First of all, let's not hope that the newly elected but inexperienced legislators would try to imitate what professional politicians do, for at least three reasons. First, because politics as usual produces laws that favor special interests and don't serve us well. We should want laws that serve "us" rather than "them". Laws that protect us from special interests, from uncaring decision makers running big corporations and other powerful organizations. Second, because politics as usual produces laws that are incredibly numerous and complicated. As congress now operates, literally thousands of bills are introduced every year, probably virtually none of which are actually written by congresspersons, or under their direction. Typically the bills are far longer, far more complicated, and contain far more detail than is necessary or desirable. As a result, probably nobody actually reads the bills before voting on them. If a congressperson doesn't read them, there is no way they can be doing their own thinking, assessing the issues and how well the proposed legislation will address them. And third, because congress as it now operates doesn’t seem to be able to do much of anything. That's particularly tragic when you consider the number and magnitude of the challenges we ordinary people face every day. And for most of us, things are getting worse, not better.

Is that a good way to make law? Of course not. The result is thousands upon thousands of laws that are extremely difficult to understand and impossible to know them all. Laws we can be punished for if we break, because "ignorance of the law is no defense". Nearly every aspect of our lives is affected by laws we know little or nothing about, but can be punished for breaking. The natural result is we're often afraid to try something new for fear we might break the rules! Does this sound like freedom to you? 

It would be far better to craft bills that are short and clear, yet still adequate to address the most important issues. Such bills can be read, understood, and considered easily by us as congresspersons prior to a vote. What such bills lack in specificity they make up for in solid, principled language that is easy to understand and hard to work around. Therefore, the resulting laws should be effective to simply and directly implement solutions to real problems. 

What else? Laws should have a moral foundation that reflects our core values and aspirations. Sadly, this is seldom true when laws are written to benefit special interests instead of people. 

Laws should NOT be passed simply to engineer society in ways that do not benefit us as a whole, but mainly benefit small factions or special interests. This is precisely what we regular folks oppose, and politics-as-usual produces as a matter of course.

Furthermore, laws that set up any kind of new system should be particularly straightforward to be certain the system works as it was meant to. Such laws may also include defensive features if appropriate to make it difficult to manipulate the system by any private party or combination trying to turn it to their advantage.

How can we, as newly elected members of congress with no prior legislative experience to pollute our thinking, determine what the most important issues are, or how to solve them, or the likely effectiveness of possible solutions? First and most importantly, we must recognize and appreciate that relying on ourselves to make our own laws, instead of relying on politicians to do it for us, is indeed desirable. This is true because we ourselves are the only ones we can trust to serve our interests. Furthermore, we already know what we need and want, whereas politicians generally appear to not know or care.

It's a good practice to provide for convenient and frequent communication with large numbers of our constituents. For example, we can set up web sites that recognize and address situations and challenges in our home states and districts. We can encourage our constituents to provide us with their biggest challenges, comments, and suggestions. We can conduct regular polls of our constituents to get a good handle on their actual concerns, and solicit their views on what appropriate remedies might be.

Has your congressperson ever reached out to you for your views on what you thought was important? Have you ever even seen or heard from your congressperson other than when they asked for your vote during a campaign? Such neglect is appalling from representatives that are genuinely trying to serve us. At the very least, an elected official should have a web site that provides information on topics of current interest at home. A web site that provides information, guidance, and assistance regarding particular federal and other programs and resources that are available to the people being represented.

The founders clearly intended that ordinary people of average intelligence and ability be empowered to write their own laws. So we should be careful not to set up any laws or governmental systems so complex that an average person can’t understand them. Or are so intertwined that an average person can’t predict how they’ll behave when put into action. We should be careful not to make so many laws that an average person is afraid to try anything new because they might break one of them. Our legislative goal should be to write and pass a reasonable body of laws, all of which are brief, straightforward, easy to understand, and easy to predict the outcome when put into operation.  

You shouldn’t have to be one of “the smartest people in the room” to understand the law, or to be an effective legislator. Unless you are a bona fide genius, more intelligent people will always be out there, and they can be consulted when needed. Of course, some issues are genuinely complex. Some may even be deliberately muddied by the few who are benefited by a particular situation at the expense of the many who are not. To address such issues, we should be personally able to thoroughly grasp complex ideas, and be able to consider aspects that are not easy to perceive. Otherwise, when confronted with such thorny issues we'll have to rely on the understanding, explanations, and judgment of others. That means we won't be able to exercise our own sound, independent, conscience-driven judgment.  

Further, we can decide for ourselves whether a particular situation even warrants a new law to address it. There are plenty of situations that the legal system never needs to be involved in. It’s hard to believe that tens of thousands of new bills are actually called for every year to serve us ordinary folks, and not to serve special interests at our expense. And, even the most complex issues can be handled competently by inviting written briefs of reasonable length from various parties that have a stake in or have studied the issues. Then just read the briefs, and consider the stated positions in view of the author's background or status. When so informed, develop a well-considered opinion, and write, introduce, or vote in favor of bills that reflect that informed opinion. Such bills may include repealing existing laws, or amending them, or drafting new ones. Each bill should be brief, clear, and easy to understand, so that everyone in congress can personally read and consider every single one before voting on it. This approach is far better than the common practice of drafting lengthy, cumbersome legislation, containing language provided by special interests, that virtually no one reads or understands before a vote.

These are the principles we should follow when introducing bills into congress. Just as importantly, we should also refuse to consider bills introduced by others that don't follow these principles, and vote against them. We won't have to consider voting along party lines, because we won't have a party. This is the way our republic is supposed to work, isn't it?