Double or Triple Negative Legislation

On the doorstep of House Republicans voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act (this time, pushing to “reorganize one-sixth of the country’s economy” without any feedback whatsoever from the Congressional Budget Office), I woke up this morning prior to the bill squeaking by with a notification from the Countable app about another piece of legislation that landed on today’s congressional schedule. The headline gave me pause:

It took me five times to read that title to make sure I understood it. Three negatives turn this sentence into a forsaken math equation: “not,” “exempt,” and “waivers.” The title above was Countable’s editorial attempt at making laymen’s sense of H. R. 2192 which actually carries the title, “To amend the Public Health Service Act to eliminate the non-application of certain State waiver provisions to Members of Congress and congressional staff.” Confused yet? Yeah, it’s grammatical brain surgery. I was not alone in my confusion, for many users of Countable voiced identical opinions in both the Yea and Nay columns. The bill simply axes exemptions so that members of Congress must endure the healthcare options available to citizens, thereby making them and their staffs subject to the healthcare laws they write and pass. Only fair. H. R. 2192 passed unanimously, so fortunately Representatives did not have as much trouble interpreting it as we did.

The issue here revolves around public participation in legislation. The way our representatives title, draft, and summarize bills matters. Congress as of this writing had not posted a summary of the bill even after it had already passed. It matters because, without clear language, everyday people cannot hold Representatives accountable. What if instead H. R. 2192 cryptically allowed Congress to hypocritically waive all healthcare requirements they imposed on the American people? When I started reading H. R. 2192 to clarify the listing in Countable to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I was led further astray by disembodied references to sections in other bills left unlinked in the Government Publishing Office’s document. Law can be a labyrinth or black hole for the average person. It’s impossible to make sense of it all without a dedicated staff to help decipher, which is why we delegate governance responsibility to elected Representatives who can focus on it. We’re not a direct democracy; we can’t vote on every law ourselves. Without question, we need to delegate day to day government. It’s unrealistic to think that could ever go away. We all have other things to do.

But government affects our lives and we have a right to understand what’s going on. We’re sorely lacking an efficient and integrated way to simultaneously keep up with, engage in, and even motivate the goings on of our Representation. Tools like Countable do a good job of keeping you appraised and even giving you tools to easily contact your representative, but it’s far from perfect. We would all benefit from some form of AI assistant keeping us up to speed, with whom we could chat to better understand bills proposed, to whom we could express our opinions, and through whom at scale we could better hold our Representatives accountable.