Procrastination Nation

Things that Robert is thinking about that keep him from accomplishing anything.

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Monday, November 22, 2004
Technological Virtue
The lame duck Congress finally got around to passing some of its main outstanding authorization bills, and so now, only after it has passed and is assured a presidential signautre, has anyone taken the time to read it. Tuesday's Post reports on Congress' new power to snoop in income tax returns, and there is this change overriding state laws to make legal abortions still more difficult to obtain (hat tip to TalkingPointsMemo).

My question is this: why is it not possible to post drafts of legislation to a web server and make them publicly viewable before they become law? If the 535 members of Congress cannot bother to read the legislation (and in fairness to them, it is a shitload to read and probably not physically possible to read), then let 280 million pairs of eyes read it and share in the responsibility?

I realize there is some level at which this may contribute to tyranny of the agrieved and vocal minority faction or even full-scale ochlocracy (mob rule). Just think of the work of the Christian Coalition in late '80s and early '90s. So, perhaps there may be a period during which the people paid to do the work should have first crack at reading it. But, you know what, it's better to find out what the hell is in the bills before they're passed than after they're signed into law. Look at the havoc created by the changes to overtime regulations this summer. (Of course, I can't find a damned thing on Google right this second, but...)

The other thing this accomplishes is that it countes (to a degree) the power of lobbyists to control legislation by controlling specific legislators. Including the citizenry in the effort means the public has a voice in the debate when the outcome is still (at least nominally) in doubt. If ordinary folks--ordinary in the sense that they're just citizens, not that they're a random sample of the populace--that, assuredly, is not the case--can stop Dan Rather from making charges against President Bush stick, imagine what similarly motivated people can do for legislation. This would also give these grass roots groups, left and right, something to do in the time between elections. Is this not a legitimate form of participatory democracy? The open source version of law making.

Update: I neglected to talk about two other key virtues last night, mostly because it was late, but also because I can't seem to keep multiple thoughts in my head at the same time and type and edit. Those virtues would be:
  • a system to track who makes edits to a document and when (e.g., you have to log on to the server to add/delete/modify items and privileges have to be set for you), and
  • an electronic "version compare" system to do roughly the equivalent of "document compare" in Word, but a little more sophisticated.

This is not to say that these systems can't be compromised (e.g., stealing someone's password to post edits, bribing someone to post edits), but such things can be tracked and dealt with as they occur. At least we will have someplace to start when investigating who and how something was added.

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