Revision Control and Open Government
In software development, one of the fundamental tools is revision control.
It’s fundamental enough that if you’re talking to someone who writes software and you ask them what they use for revision control, you’ll start a whole conversation about the proper way to do revision control, and you might even spark side conversations about whether or not it is properly called revision control or version control or source control.
You don’t just follow these principles in software development. In construction, you get preliminary architectural plans, followed by multiple iterations of construction drawings, and ending with an as-built set of drawings that tell you how the building was actually constructed, after all the value-engineering bits and site modifications were done. This process is usually fairly rigorously controlled during building construction, not just because nobody wants the building to fall down, but also because everybody wants to get paid, and having subcontractors properly documenting what they did is the only way for the general and the subcontractor to both be satisfied that the job got done and everybody got paid properly. You see the same thing in engineering disciplines, where “documenting how we made this thing” is nearly a religious principle.
We don’t do this with the law. In fact, we’ve joked about it for over a hundred years now.
Committees, advisory panels, anonymous holds, subcommittee revisions, public comments, voice votes… the ways in which “those who make the laws” actively seek to hide how the laws get made from “those who need to live under the laws” are legion. Why?
Plausible deniability. The ability to disclaim your actual policy preferences to your constituents, who may or may not agree with all of your actual policy preferences. Back door deals. Selling influence. Paternalism. Heck, the reasons are nearly as legion as the methods. It’s not always nefarious… Congress can gut a regulatory oversight process, and individual Congresscritters can go straight to the podium and decry something that they themselves voted for, without knowing that they voted for it! This is a classic information asymmetry problem, with all of the unintended consequences that come with information asymmetry problems.
As a result, we get public debates where politicians can very carefully make very specific claims about their accomplishments that are highly misleading. We get people arguing about voting records, and whether or not objections are genuine or principled or pragmatic. We get public speeches like this:
(For the moment, we’ll ignore the fact that Senator Paul has probably contributed last minute additions to somebody’s bill. This isn’t about whether or not Rand Paul is an exemplar of honesty.)
I will note that it’s not entirely accurate that “nobody has read the bill”. Obviously someone has read these “last minute additions that have been stuck in this bill”. The person who wrote the last minute addition, certainly.
Who that person is, that is carefully shielded from the public.
We need to cut that out, it flies directly in the face of the entire conceptual idea of representative republican democracy.
Put bills under revision control. From the first author, co-sponsor stage, through sub-committee recommendations, to committee revisions, to submission to one house of Congress, through the vote (which should never, ever be a voice vote and should always, forever, require a public record), all the way through reconciliation, right up to the signing.
It is not enough to know who voted on what. We need to know how the bill was built.