Revision Control and Open Government

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Patrick

Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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  1. Avatar zic
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    says:

    Nice, Patrick.

    As important as this is: It is not enough to know who voted on what. We need to know how the bill was built. it’s only half the battle.

    How the law is implemented matters, too.

    Rule Making. Our great secret; the place of most regulatory capture, is where the devil in the details comes to life. Just like the legislative process, it’s public and open to public comment. Yet rarely is the ‘public’ sitting at the table.

    But the lobbyists are there, in force. It’s very profitable for them to be there.

    And then there’s evaluation. We pass laws, we implement them. We rarely build an evaluation method into them up front; and so those same laws chug along, often co-opted by special interests through the rule making, if not through the legislative process.

    Methods of accessing outcomes should be built in and paid for up front.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic
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      says:

      We pass laws, we implement them. We rarely build an evaluation method into them up front; and so those same laws chug along, often co-opted by special interests through the rule making, if not through the legislative process.

      I think you and I and Jaybird, just to name three of us, are all in agreement on the evaluation method idea.

      How the law is implemented matters, too.

      This is where Jason and James have a good point, and federalism properly leveraged could help a lot. If regulatory agencies were regional/state, and oversight was provided by the Feds, instead of most of the regulatory burden occurring at the Federal level with no oversight by the states, we’d have a better check on this sort of thing.

      But yes, this matters. One giant hurdle at a time, though 😉Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Patrick
        Ignored
        says:

        “If regulatory agencies were regional/state, and oversight was provided by the Feds, we’d have a better check on this sort of thing.”

        Or, alternatively, there would be a race to the bottom. In general, people pay less attention to state politics than they do to federal, and lobbyists can get away with more. You really trust Alabama to write proper regulations for lead disposal? It’s already happened with Delaware/South Dakota and the credit card industry.Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to Dan Miller
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          says:

          That’s a valid point, too, Dan, but if Texas doesn’t want their fertilizer factories to effin’ esplode, Texas can solve that problem.

          I can live not-in-Texas.

          If the Federal Government comes in and audits Texas’s regulatory framework for fertilizer factories, and says, “This is a very bad idea because of (f00), (bar)”, then the people of Texas can choose to pay attention (or not) to the Feds.

          The advantage is that in order to capture regulatory agencies, if you’re the fertilizer industry, you have to capture all the regulatory agencies of all of the states that have fertilizer factories, and the federal auditor/oversight board.

          From a security standpoint, the federated system is harder to penetrate, and more difficult to maintain capture over time.Report

          • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick
            Ignored
            says:

            Ahh, Patrick? I’ve spent some good amount of time in the bowels of state houses, and it’s pathetically easy to capture state regulatory agencies. I’ve watched environmental groups do it, polluters do it, banks do it, consumer watch groups do it. (Yes, lobbyists for liberal groups do it, too. And they deceive and twist the truth as much as corporations and conservative groups.)Report

            • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic
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              says:

              Are those state regulatory agencies audited by anybody at the federal level?Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick
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                says:

                Sometimes; if federal funding is involved.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic
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                says:

                Are those audits actually meaningful? Can action be taken upon them?Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick
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                says:

                It’s all over the place. First, it depends on the funding mechanism. Second, the Feds generally defer to local control if all appears to be done within the scope of the law, so there’s tremendous variation with any given program. Direct payment (Medicaid reimbursement, etc.) tends to be more rigidly audited, less state-level fraud. Block grants allow a wide latitude, so there’s likely to be more rent seeking. Also, as funds disperse from the state to the county and city/town level, they potential for abused and need for auditing follows. At least in the northeast, most sorts of rent seeking that go on, when not overt corruption, will likely go unnoticed.

                In most cases, I’d suggest that the result is an extreme adherence to the letter of the law/program/reporting requirements, and total disregard for the spirit of the law. And not surprisingly, the expertise on how to manage that following the letter while disregarding the spirit comes from experienced and connected lobbyists. Those lobbyists; they’re most helpful. Nothing would get done without them, because people don’t want to pay for competent government, particularly at the state level.

                We’re literally letting these folk do their work without much public oversight; and expecting that oversight from the feds is laughable. It’s what the press should do. And there isn’t any money to pay reporters anymore. People generally thing of reporters as media personalities on their TV now, not people willing to learn complex policy and pay close attention to it over decades.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic
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                says:

                If we’re already letting them do the work without oversight, then expecting the feds to start is at worst a neutral expectation.

                I’m looking at it as a security problem. Different layers of abstraction audit others; compliance is more likely because the auditor and the audited are two different entities.

                It is very difficult to audit the federal government. It should be relatively easy, in comparison, for the federal government to audit state governments.

                Whether or not anybody pays attention to the results of the audit is an independent problem.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Patrick
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            says:

            Nope. You just m ove all your factories to Texas, killing Texans, and the fine folks in the other 49 states are screwed when it comes to jobs. If they’re not willing to needlessly die to come to work, they should stay jobless the lazy lie-abouts.

            You can see how this plays out with the credit card industry.Report

            • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Morat20
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              says:

              This, this, this. Not to mention pollutants that cross state lines.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to Dan Miller
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                says:

                If Wyoming is dumping runoff into a river that crosses into another state, it should be trivially easy for the second state to sue to stop that.

                That’s actually what the Interstate Commerce clause is *supposed* to be about, I’d say.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick
                Ignored
                says:

                Via the Clean Water Act; upstream point-source pollution has to meet the downstream local standards; or that is my understanding from talking with both state and federal DEP/EPA workers and from living on a river that receives both industrial and municipal water from treatment plants in New Hampshire before the waterway crosses into Maine.

                I do not know where that enforcement comes from.

                Sadly, the same does not seem to be true of air; so I live in a state that’s down wind of the Ohio River Valley, and has some of the most severe problems with mercury in the water; the mercury is emitted into the air from burning coal to generate electricity. Maine’s standards are stricter then the Federal standards, but we have no ‘down stream’ control over other states.Report

              • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Patrick
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                says:

                Air pollution is the killer here (as is the glacial pace of the court system, and the fact that a conservative judiciary may gut any pollution suit).Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Dan Miller
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                says:

                Also, the general fact that I don’t believe people in Texas who can’t leave Texas shouldn’t be left in an even worse position simply because they happen to live in a state where people have no problem voting for assholes.

                Even if I agree with the larger point that there may be too many regulations on the federal level, the fix isn’t to say, “hey, if you happen to live in Alabama or Texas and work in a low wage job, good luck!”

                That’s not even getting into the fact that I don’t really care what the Interstate Commerce clause was for when it took three days to cross Rhode Island.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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                says:

                We’re stuck with democracy, dude.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Patrick
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                says:

                There’s nothing in democracy that says individual states should have certain powers. In fact, states are a largely useless constructs since most of the things they have power over would even be better on either a local or national scale.Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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                says:

                There’s nothing in democracy that says individual states should have certain powers.

                Empirically true. Patrick should have said, “We’re stuck with federalism, dude (at least until we amend the Constitution.”

                states are a largely useless constructs since most of the things they have power over would even be better on either a local or national scale.

                The claim can be made, but it depends as much on value judgements as empirical evidence. (Of course the same is precisely as true of any claims in contradiction to it.)Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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                says:

                states are a largely useless constructs since most of the things they have power over would even be better on either a local or national scale.

                Um, remind me not to have you design a security system.

                There is a *big* advantage to federated systems when it comes to audit and oversight (with the proviso that it needs to be done correctly, which I’ll grant it isn’t in our present incarnation).

                If you only have the Federal and Local governments, the ability of the Local governments to influence the Federal is pretty low.

                Put another way: one can argue that the reason that we have the regulatory framework on the national level that we have right now is because we have a federated system, and California largely throws around a lot of regulatory weight.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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                says:

                James is of course correct: we have a federal republic. Fortunately for us small-staters, it means that Jesse can’t run roughshod over our preferences merely in the event that he and his ilk have me and my ilk outnumbered. 🙂Report

              • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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                says:

                James is of course correct:

                Is there a way to adjust the blog settings so this reposts automatically each day?Report

          • Avatar Barry in reply to Patrick
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            says:

            “That’s a valid point, too, Dan, but if Texas doesn’t want their fertilizer factories to effin’ esplode, Texas can solve that problem.”

            ‘Texas’ doesn’t do anything but exist, quite passively. The *government* of Texas might want/not want fertilizer factories to explode, and might/might not do something. I don’t say ‘people of Texas’, because IIRC Texas is heavily gerrymandered.

            “The advantage is that in order to capture regulatory agencies, if you’re the fertilizer industry, you have to capture all the regulatory agencies of all of the states that have fertilizer factories, and the federal auditor/oversight board.”

            Are there fertilizer plants in every state?Report

          • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick
            Ignored
            says:

            This shows how local control can work.

            Finland has much more powerful local governments than the U.S., and they’re tasked with executing the myriad functions of the welfare system — from helping the poor to operating the day cares. Municipal taxes are redistributed and supplemented with grants, thus largely eliminating the problem of under-resourced areas. Local public expenditures are 20 percent of GDP in Finland, but just 10 percent in the U.S., he points out.

            The problem isn’t the structure of a federated system with more local control, it’s the incentives we have for crappy politicians to get themselves elected.Report

  2. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
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    says:

    Great idea

    It’ll never happen short of an amendment rammed down their throats, but it is a great idea.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    (We call it “CM” or “Change Management” in my neck of the woods.)

    Part of the problem is that there are laws that say things like “Line 83 of Law X-1Bgt will have the word “Friday” changed to “Friday and Tuesday””

    What just happened with that law? Did something double? What was it? Instead of just reading the law I’m trying to read, I also have to read Law X-1Bgt?

    I CALL SHENANIGANS!!!

    The biggest problem (well…. one of them…) that I have with our legislative (and legal) system is that it requires people who are smart to understand what the laws mean (and what they mean with regards to the Constitution).

    Someone of average intelligence should be able to understand what’s going on.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      You know, if we knew who made the change to Line 83, at the very least we could determine, in short order, who the guys and gals are who do things like change Line 83 routinely.

      This, I would guess, would be useful information in and of itself.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Patrick
        Ignored
        says:

        Remember the secret hold shenanigans back on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006?

        The bill eventually passed (and unanimously!) but… man. I wish that the Senate wasn’t half as good as gaming laws designed to make them transparent as they actually are.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I read (and less frequently wrote) bills and amendments like that professionally for three years, as a member of the permanent non-partisan legislative staff here in Colorado. For the sake of discussion, I’ll take a crack at defending the use of this technique.

      First, the mechanism is a hundred-plus-year-old tool to accomplish exactly what Patrick claims to want: as the bill passes through the process, every single change that is accepted (and today, all that are formally proposed but not accepted) can be accounted for. Who made the proposal; when they made the proposal; who voted for or against it in each committee or in the formal floor votes. It may take me a day at a computer in the legislative library to reconstruct the process for a particular bill after it’s passed (there’s no access to the database from the Internet), but I can do it. And they could do it back in 1900, using typewriters and/or hand-set type.

      Second, statute is a multi-volume whole, built up over decades. It had to be organized in some fashion. Consider a bill concerned with child welfare. It may include changes to the definition of child abuse in one place, responsibilities of the county social services’ organization to investigate child abuse in another, sentencing guidelines in a third, establishment of a fund from which certain related costs will be paid in a fourth, and a tax mechanism to put money in that fund in a fifth. Statute is not organized by subjects like child welfare, it’s organized by subjects like crime, county responsibilities, and funding. We’re stuck with the structure; starting over is too complex to even be considered.

      Third, the system can be concise because it can be applied to intermediate results. There are times, particularly in a state legislature near the end of the season, when things have to be done quickly. It’s much faster to get a committee report that says, “In the Finance Committee report of April 1, 2013, page 3, line 14, strike ‘seventeen’ and substitute ‘sixteen’.” written and proofread than it is to reproduce the relevant paragraph, section, or chapter. My last year I was lead staff for the House Appropriations Committee; it ain’t fun to be the one proofreading committee reports for the 21 bills that were heard at the 6:30 AM meeting and listening to the Speaker of the House on a live microphone over in the House chamber ask, “Rep. Pommer, just when the hell will your staff have the committee reports here?”

      Fourth, for the case where a whole new program is being added, the bulk of the text will be clear: “After Title 3, Chapter 4, Section A, paragraph (1), subparagraph (ii), add the following… Renumber sucessive subparagraphs accordingly.” Where the ellipsis represents two pages of new language.

      Fifth, no one’s seriously proposed an alternative. My own opinion is that anything workable will have to be incremental in nature (to use an old UNIX example, diff/patch). Automatic enrolling would be a valuable tool, but most votes need to be made on changes.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain
        Ignored
        says:

        My alternative:

        Rewrite the entirety of Law X-1Bgt and change the line as appropriate. Add an additional line: “This law repeals X-1Bgt.”Report

        • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          I once — for odd reasons — needed to look up Texas law concerning name changes for marriage.

          Then I had to look up WHEN the law had been changed to allow either gender to change their last name, easily, upon marriage rather than just the wife.

          The relevant law passed by Texas read “In subsection F, section 1104.1.223C of the Texas Blahdy-Blah Civil Code” [not the real numbers] — ‘replace the word ‘wife’ with ‘spouse’.

          Everyone knew what they were voting on. They were voting on whether the whole rules on changing IDs and the like when you got married were unisex or not. Nobody was confused. It was easy enough to find, and I could get a year and a complete list of who voted for or against it.

          Congress works the same way. What more do you actually want from them? If you had the time, you could trace every change in a given law back to it’s first incarnation and who voted for or against it. All that information is kept.

          Turns out complex things are complicated and no one has written an app to scrape the laws for you (although I bet you bottom dollar that plenty of lobbying firms and think-tanks own ones that do) and publish it how you want.

          But still, even my dead-tree paper faithfully informs me who sponsored an amendment, what it does, and who voted for or against it — even if it persists in going with “The amendment failed in the Senate, with 58 Senators voting for passage”.

          Even the whole “Got to read or pass the bill to know what’s in it” stuff is BS, as is the “it’s too long!”. (First, have you seen the font they use? This post would be about 10 pages. Minimum). Second, the bill ain’t law until all the amendments are voted on. So yeah, until the voting is done, you can’t be sure of the bill’s contents.

          That’s like complaining the Presidential elections aren’t trustworthy, because you can’t know who wins until after it’s happened.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Morat20
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            says:

            Perhaps, then, instead of just “replace the word X with the phrase Y”, we could have the new/improved paragraph?

            Not all laws are as straightforward/obvious enough to know that we’re preparing for, say, SSM by these substitutions.Report

            • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              Actually you do. In the actual big honking book of laws, the next edition out has the revised code written in clear English.

              See, that’s sort of the problem. The “bills before Congress” are often not laws, but changes to law. So they’re written to say “We want this change” rather than reprinting the entire law with the changes in place. Partially because amending a law has less problems than replacing it wholesale (even with an almostidentical copy), but mostly so you can quickly find out what has changed.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          Offer some sort of scope for “law”. The law on mail ballots in Colorado is (largely) contained in C.R.S. 1-7.5-101 through 112, and runs about 50 pages IIRC. The complexity has piled up because some of the county clerks don’t like mail ballots and have done their best to interpret something simple like “Every registered voter of the State of Colorado shall have access to a mail ballot for each election” in ways that allow them to make it as difficult as possible for voters to get mail ballots, so the state legislature has had to tie their hands in detail. But that’s an issue for another day (and for the record, I’m a strong advocate of simple laws). When the mail ballot law is changed, do you intend to have a different version of the modified 50 pages printed and distributed, one for every proposed amendment? If the change is controversial, maybe 30 or 40 different versions? And somehow keeping track of all that would be more transparent than the current system?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            If there are government workers who will not do their jobs, I don’t see that the solution is to pass an amendment that says “seriously, this *IS* your job” (to run with your example).

            When the mail ballot law is changed, do you intend to have a different version of the modified 50 pages printed and distributed, one for every proposed amendment?

            I don’t understand why that would follow.

            If the change is controversial, maybe 30 or 40 different versions?

            I certainly don’t understand why *THAT* would follow.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird
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              says:

              I don’t understand why that would follow.

              I’m trying to understand what you mean by “Rewrite the entirety of Law X-1Bgt and change the line as appropriate. Add an additional line: ‘This law repeals X-1Bgt.'” means. I took it to mean that Sen. Smith’s bill to make a change in the 50-page Law X-1Bgt would be the 50-page law as Sen. Smith wants it to read, with the necessary changes scattered throughout. Now the bill is going to be heard in the first committee that hears Bgt bills, and Sen. Jones wants a somewhat different version of the law (for example, believes that only some of Sen. Smith’s changes should be adopted, or that additional changes should be made). Committee rules almost invariable require that proposed amendments to a bill be distributed in advance because the members like to think about changes before the meeting (and in the worst case, paper copies are required to be distributed). What does Sen. Jones distribute to the other committee members, if not a complete version of the law as she wants it to read? For clarity, committee rules usually require that amendments be considered serially. When Sen. Rice wrote his amended version of the bill, he didn’t know if Sen. Jones’ amendment would be adopted or rejected; his 50-page version doesn’t include Sen. Jones’ changes.

              Are you proposing that the “full text” requirement only applies to the submitted bill? That each committee provide a “full text” version to hand on to whoever gets the bill next? Something else? I’m trying to reconcile in my head a work flow that looks anything like that used by most legislatures, where proposed changes have to be submitted in advance in writing, with the notion of working with full text rather than simply with changes.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain
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                says:

                Most of the laws that I’ve seen that take the form “change this word to that one, change this other word to that one” have, like, dozens of these clauses.

                We’re not voting on 1 of 18, then 2 of 18, then 3 of 18. It’s “Do you want all 18 or not?”

                If I were a member of a legislature and I was asked to vote on whether to change, to use my example, Line 83 of Law X-1Bgt from the word “Friday” to “Friday and Tuesday”, I would have *NO IDEA* what I was voting on.

                At the very least, I’d want the paragraph. At least! Less than that would be legislative malpractice.

                I suppose we could do the thing where we look over at our Speaker or Whip, yep, they’re nodding, I press the green button… but that strikes me as bad too.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird
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                says:

                I’ll only speak to the case in Colorado; Congress and other state legislatures may be different. The final vote on a bill isn’t done “cold”. For most bills, there’s some sort of narrative available from the day it was introduced that explains what the bill accomplishes, and why. The bill has been heard in one or more committees, where the sponsor(s) explained what it was accomplishing, why that was a good idea, and why all of the changes made by the bill are necessary to accomplish that. Experts — and the public generally — were allowed to testify as to whether the changes are appropriate. If a majority of the committee members disagreed, they made changes. Substantial parts of every legislative day are spent on the floor to, among other things, give members who couldn’t make it to a committee meeting the chance to ask the sponsor questions. At least in Colorado, the second floor vote on a bill requires that the sponsor explain the bill’s purpose briefly again, explain any changes made in committee, and other members are allowed the opportunity to speak for or against the bill.

                In some cases that second-vote process is trivial. The sponsor says, “Members, this bill brings Colorado’s state law on petunia planting into conformance with recent changes in federal law. There are no committee reports (that is, all committees have recommended the bill be adopted without changes). I ask for an ‘aye’ vote.” No one asks to speak, and the Chair calls the roll. Maybe you weren’t on any of the committees that heard the bill, but some number of your colleagues have paid close attention and agreed that that’s an accurate description and that the bill accomplishes that purpose. You’ve been doing exactly the same thing for other bills for the committees of which you are a member. Voting for such a bill is a pretty safe thing.

                In some cases the process is decidedly non-trivial, with other members challenging it on a number of points and the sponsor defending against each challenge. In a dozen or more ways, the members are encouraged/required to be on the floor during such debates. For something controversial, all of the arguments for and against are going to be gone through, at least briefly and sometimes in excruciating detail.

                I’ll put it this way. If you’re a member of the Colorado GA, and can honestly say about a bill on which you’re about to cast your final vote, “I don’t have a clue what this bill does,” then you’re willfully ignorant. You had to go out of your way to remain that ignorant. And if the voters who elected you find out, they have a darned good reason to vote for someone else next time.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Michael Cain
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                says:

                Staffers actually do all that work, and I understand most committees pass around briefs indicating not just how the new law would look (as actually printed), but the various projections of what the changes would actually do.

                And from what I understand, often amendments are offered “all or nothing” because otherwise you’d get incoherent law.

                Rabid claims aside, Congressmen and legislators generally know exactly what they’re voting on. (Aside from the ones unwilling to read the materials given to them by their own staff and the staff of Congress/State Leg/Comptroller/OMB/whatever). The question marks are generally on how it’ll work out in practice — things like “Will this tax change actually do the X,Y,Z we’d like in practice?”

                The stuff in the ACA that wasn’t known until it was passed were tiny details, basically, that were being argued and debated until the last minute. Not issues like “Cadilliac health plans aren’t going to be fully tax free” but “Where’s the $$ figure for what’s a cadilliac plan, is it 25,000 a year or 35,000?”

                Stuff where they were a grey scale and the question was where is the line gonna be drawn. Even the biggest changes — inclusion of a public option as an amendment — were stuff that every Congressman who could be bothered to read a few paragraphs new exactly what they were voting on or against and how it would alter the bill.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        See it as the price of transparency.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      All that’s required is some software that can show you before and after next to each other. If you have that, then it’s every bit as readable as rewriting the whole law, with the added information that only N lines were changed. This is one reason SCM (Source Configuration Management, as God intended such systems to be called) works so much better with text files, where they can say “three of 523 lines were changed” than with, say, images, where you get “Here’s two differing binary files. You figure it out.”Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Mike Schilling
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        says:

        Exactly. The current system is precisely an SCM (or whatever), just implemented without benefit of software. Designed to allow changes to be reported and tracked on paper by humans with as few errors as possible. Ease of reading/tracking by lay people is one consideration; my own opinion is that accuracy must come first. One less usual aspect of the system is that a patch becomes an official document which can be referenced before an official version of the bill incorporating the patch becomes available. Since only official documents can be referenced by subsequent committees, “patching the patch” is common. Sometimes this causes trouble — writing a patch to a patch to a patch often requires peculiar punctuation.

        The system has worked remarkably well for a long time. Just my opinion, but any alternatives that are proposed really ought to bear the burden of proof for demonstrating that they won’t increase the error rate.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain
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          says:

          Lots of it is done in software. Increasingly, I’m told the Congress and most of the more efficient lobbyists have come to rely on thomas.loc.gov.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP
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            says:

            Colorado has a complete bill tracking software system — every bill, every draft amendment, every committee vote and report, it all goes into the database. As the average member of the General Assembly has become more tech savvy, reading the stuff online rather than the paper copies is becoming more common. The big feature that’s missing is automatic enrolling of adopted changes, so full-text versions of bills appear only at a few points in the process (eg, hand-off from one chamber to another, or if a committee has adopted such a large number of changes that leadership decides a full-text update is necessary to avoid subsequent errors). The last I knew access was limited to members and staff, although there were (admittedly cumbersome) ways for outsiders to get access to bill text and committee reports. Efficient lobbyists working closely with members would have pretty access through the member’s office.

            In light of the complaint that started this sub-thread, the problem would be that it’s a bill tracking system rather than a statute tracking system — the process doesn’t ever produce a full-text version of what statute will look like if the bill is adopted, other than the trivial case where a completely new section is being added.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain
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              says:

              Point taken. Yes, exactly, being able to see how a revision to statute law would affect the entire section/subsection/paragraph/sentence/clause, with a full diff -y output. Now that’s not currently available, as far as I know.Report

            • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain
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              says:

              First, I really like the sound of Colorado’s system.

              Second, In light of the complaint that started this sub-thread, the problem would be that it’s a bill tracking system rather than a statute tracking system — the process doesn’t ever produce a full-text version of what statute will look like if the bill is adopted, other than the trivial case where a completely new section is being added.

              That’s what the construction dudes refer to as the “As-Built”s.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling
        Ignored
        says:

        SCM for binary images is actually kinda easy.
        (At least, I’ve written it. so it can’t be too hard
        — highlight what’s different on two images, get a % difference,
        whatever you need.).
        You just have to write the fucking code, not just use diff.Report

  4. Avatar Jim Heffman
    Ignored
    says:

    That post was a long run for a short “RAND PAUL IS RACISS YALL” slide.Report

  5. Avatar George Turner
    Ignored
    says:

    I think code bloat and feature creep is a bigger problem than version control.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner
      Ignored
      says:

      That’s a valid point, George, but I don’t think we can get everybody to agree to write the whole OS from scratch at this point.

      Let’s tackle the problems one at a time.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      Sans feature creep and code bloat, version control becomes less important. Version control for the US Constitution is overkill — it’s a small document and changed very infrequently. OTOH, certainly by 1900 or so, many states had statutes large and complex enough that change tracking and control was a necessary part of the process. In practice, such legal complexity appears to be an outgrowth of a large and complex society. Some people assert that the legal complexity isn’t necessary, but have not yet shown a working system that demonstrates it :^)Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Version control for the US Constitution is overkill

        Some of those amendments and articles could have used embedded comments.

        Certainly the second, the fourteenth, and the commerce clause in particular could use more explication, given our discussions about ’em…Report

  6. Avatar trizzlor
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    says:

    I feel like this is a good, common-sense idea with some serious potential side-effects:

    First, the system is just as likely to be used to spread FUD as it is to inform. After Obamacare passed, it was sort of a sport on conservative blogs to find controversial-sounding clauses and highlight them as secret government takeovers (here is a real one in the wild). The claims were summarily invented or exaggerated (here is a sample debunking) but they got around. Now imagine that each of those lines also has a congressman’s timestamp attached to it, tying a specific name and district to each of those misrepresented claims. The likely outcome is that every clause will now also be analyzed for it’s out-of-context political repercussions, as well as it’s legal importance (or likely above it): bills become bloated and incomprehensible with layers of legalese to make sure they can’t be manipulated; opportunistic congressmen start including meaningless clauses stipulating that “America is the greatest country in history” or some such political nonsense; the whole legislative process becomes infected with the partisan posturing present in most other areas of politics.

    Second, it becomes more difficult to work out compromise measures and include them as work in progress. Say a few senators come up with a legislative deal that gets everyone some of what they want at the cost of some stuff they don’t like, how does that get entered into the law? Nobody wants to be accountable for just the bad stuff (especially given the previous point) and no one really wants to give up some of the good stuff either. Or alternatively, a few senators want to get some initial wording into the legislature to see how it gets voted on, now they’re on record as having supported it and they have to think about future interpretations being linked back to them. The whole thing allows much less flexibility in the negotiation process and no opportunities to make anonymous proposals. Very likely, Senators start hashing stuff out in a back-channel that’s not documented – leading to less transparency – or all changes simply get passed to the minority/majority leader who then enters them *wink-wink* under his name – and we’re back to the old system.

    I guess my point is that I just don’t see that “more transparency” necessarily leads to “more honest law-making”, indeed, I could see it leading in the opposite direction as representatives attempt to hack their way around it.Report

  7. Avatar Harold Rodriguez
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    says:

    Two Democrats voted against ending the filibuster, Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA) and Mark Begich (AK), both of whom are Democrats from heavily Republican states who are up for re-election this cycle.Report

  8. Avatar BlaiseP
    Ignored
    says:

    If only our laws worked like Mercurial, we’d be able to model our existing process aaaand have all the benefits of our current byzantine markup system.Report

  9. Avatar KatherineMW
    Ignored
    says:

    Can you explain this a bit more? Are you saying that amendments to bills aren’t recorded separate from the bills they pertain to? (I’m pretty sure they are in Canada.)

    I think there’s some place for voice votes, as a quick way to deal with minor actions (e.g., “A bill to authorize the production of a stamp [or a commemorative coin] of so-and-so”, in most cases where so-and-so isn’t a controversial figure). Speeding up the minutiae gives government more time for the important stuff. (Of course, if you’re a libertarian government’s time being clogged up with minutiae, preventing their interference in the big things, is a feature rather than a bug.)Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW
      Ignored
      says:

      The US Senate has its own Rules and Procedures. The US House of Representatives has its own rules committee: the House gets most extraordinarily weird since their rules committee is so active.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to KatherineMW
      Ignored
      says:

      My personal experience is as staff for the Colorado General Assembly. Every amendment is recorded separately, because at at least one point it has to be voted on, and votes have to apply to specific things (well, except in certain Senate committees where votes can be taken on “conceptual” amendments, meaning they’re pre-approving something that staff will turn into formal language for the committee report; staff hates conceptual amendments). At least in the GA, the final vote on a bill is always by roll call (or its electronic equivalent), although certain preliminary steps can be taken by voice vote.Report

  10. Avatar Pinky
    Ignored
    says:

    OK, this is off-topic, but I want to put this in writing, and there’s a video of Rand Paul here.

    I took some controversial positions in the Rand Paul thread, and I wish I could be there defending them. But for some reason, once a thread gets long on this site, my firewall won’t allow me access to it. I don’t know why – and I’ve had enough virus problems over the years that I don’t want to mess with my firewall. But I am sorry if it looked like I tossed a stink-bomb and ran away. I do enjoy the stink of debate, and I wish I could be there.Report

  11. Avatar Citizen
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    says:

    Democracy without random sortition is a corruption machine. There was a time that sortition was required for it to be called a democracy.
    I guess in the end there is either a price for freedom or a task for freedom.Report

  12. Avatar Michael Cain
    Ignored
    says:

    Having said several things about how things work in Colorado, I am forced to admit that this quote about the farm bill passed by the House on Thursday makes Patrick’s point about Congress: “Just passing the bill, which was prepared in the House Rules Committee in the dark of night Wednesday…” The fact that some legislative bodies in the US can’t operate that way does leave me with some hope that Congress might get sane rules some day…Report

  13. Avatar Delbert D. Carpenter
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    says:

    The following is a simple explanation of the process required for a bill to become a law. For a complete explanation, see… ” How Our Laws Are Made ” (Library of Congress) Revised and Updated by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives.Report

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