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Hoffman: Legislature should follow the constitution, stop making up history

Hoffman: Legislature should follow the constitution, stop making up history

Wayne Hoffman
May 3, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
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May 3, 2009

Perhaps you're at a loss as to how a legislative session can possibly last 113 days. You might be unaware of the arduous restrictions and mandates of Idaho law that make it so. Our state's founders insisted on a thoroughly deliberative process by writing into the constitution in 1889 the requirement that each bill "shall be read at length, section by section." So while I wasn't there on March 6, I know that the members of the House of Representatives, faithfully adhering to the provisions of Idaho's constitution, were privileged to an exhaustive reading of all 98 pages of House Bill 201, a measure to consolidate Idaho's election dates - after which, the bill passed 52-17. And I note that the March 6 House Journal expressly says that House Bill 201 was read for the third time "at length, section by section, and placed before the House for final consideration."

Every bill goes the same route. The House and Senate journals - the official record of Boise legislative happenings - proclaim it to be true. So it must be, right?

Reality is not so elegant. Nearly all bills are passed by sidestepping the requirement for the full and complete reading of the legislation. Members of the House and Senate merely ask for the unanimous agreement of their peers that the bill's constitutionally required reading "be dispensed with and that the journal show it has been read at length, section by section." In other words, lawmakers agree to conceal the history with a wink and a nod.

For years, I have referred to this as the Idaho Legislature's "Big Lie," a stain on an otherwise glossy and admirable process of conducting the people's business. But woe befalls the legislator who has the temerity to point out the deviation between constitutional policy and legislative practice - and that's why even the bravest of souls refuse to do much more than gripe about it privately.

Today, bills only get read in their entirety when one class of lawmakers wants to slow down the legislative process as retribution for a perceived injustice. (Slowing down the legislative process could be a welcomed change anywhere. How many of you believe the Legislature passes too many laws? Who would like Congress to occasionally read a bill?)

Many states have requirements for their bills to be read in whole as many as four times. And most states have a process that allows for the reading of the legislation to be waived. Rarely, if ever, do bills get read in their entirety anymore.

The requirement for multiple readings goes back five centuries, when petitions of the people were presented to the British parliament, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Later, American states adopted the multiple-readings model largely because only one copy of each bill existed and most measures were drafted by committee, not by individual legislators or professional staff, as is the case today. Now Idaho lawmakers can quickly access a copy of any bill - and you can, too - via the Internet. That leaves some to question the 21st-century value of a 19th-century obligation for a clerk to read each and every bill aloud.

Whether or not the three-readings provision of the Idaho Constitution is archaic is a matter of debate, but the provision itself is not. It exists. The question then is whether to obey it or amend it - either of which is rife with political and practical pitfalls. But in the meantime, one observation should be easy to accept: Idaho lawmakers do a disservice to history by recording for posterity events as they never really happened.

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