2009/06/16

What doesn't work

What doesn't work is for citizens to demand change from others without writing the language in which that change will be implemented. If you file a court action, complaining of some injustice, and demanding relief, you might "win" the judgment but lose the case if you don't draft the order for the judge to sign. Leave it to the judge to draft it and he is likely to accept a draft prepared by your opponent, which doesn't give you the relief you thought you won. Similarly with other reforms. We can't leave the drafting of the language of proposals to others. If we want it done right we have to write it. That applies not just to court orders, or to legislation, but to how we want the Constitution to be interpreted. That is why I have proposed Clarifying Amendments in my Draft Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They need never be ratified if enough of us use them as a standard for our demands for how we want the Constitution interpreted.

I spent a couple of years in Washington, lobbying for various causes without pay. I learned how other lobbyists developed the kind of influence they have. It's not just that they bring money or votes. I didn't bring either of those. But I found I could earn access to members of Congress by helping them review their legislation to make sure it was what they wanted. Most members don't know how to draft legislation to the point where it is ready to be submitted, dropped in the "hopper". They provide a rough draft to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), who then puts it in final form, doing the numbering and finding the cites to existing legislation that would be affected by it and that it would amend. But they usually don't fully understand what the member wants to achieve, or get it quite right. A member will have a few legislative staffers to help with review, but they tend to be busy with other tasks, and they don't always understand exactly what the member wants, either. Of course, sometimes the legislation is really the staffer's idea and the member needs to make sure it is also what he wants. So I learned how to do that research and draft legislation ready for the hopper. I would try to anticipate objections from other stakeholders, and avoid ambiguities, so they would have less reason to tear it apart. I found that that was what the most influential lobbyists did. They didn't ask members to have legislation drafted for them. They did it themselves, giving sympathetic members a finished product. Interest groups who didn't do that seldom got anything like what they wanted, if they got anything at all.

The same principle works for publicity. The way to get articles written in the major media the way you want them written is to submit press releases that are ready to print without editing. Journalists are lazy. They would rather submit a press release and put their names on it than to write an article from scratch. You might have to submit hundreds of such press releases to get one published, but often all it takes is one to justify the effort to have written all the others.

Or consider court rules. They can be as important, if not more so, than legislation, although they are adopted by the judges, sometimes in defiance of legislation. Such rules tend to be written for the convenience of judges, but the language they contain usually started as the language in a lawyer's brief in some case. If enough lawyers submit enough briefs suggesting the same language for judicial rules, that language is likely to be adopted.

Another important area is administrative regulations. Agencies submit proposed regulations for public comment, and if enough members of the public object, they may withdraw proposed regulations, or greatly modify them to respond to objections. But what works best is for people not just to object to the language of regulations, but to propose alternative language, especially if enough people propose the same language.

In the field of rule drafting don't expect most lawyers to be experts. Most lawyers aren't even that good at drafting contracts, and drafting legislation, regulations, or judicial rules requires more advanced skills that it takes most people years to acquire. Even staffers in the Congressional Research Service aren't that good at it.

Don't write blank checks or neglect the fine print

Speaking of contracts, consider how often you are presented with contracts written by others and asked to sign, on a take it or leave it basis. Read all such contracts carefully. Don't assume they have been subjected to thorough scrutiny to protect the interests of people like you. If you find language that seems against your best interests, it probably is. Strike that language out before signing it, or propose alternative language.

What is most difficult is to draft things in a way that wisely intervene in what are highly complex systems, with many feedback loops that make them incomprehensible even to the best experts. Intervene the wrong way and you get hundreds or even thousands of unintended bad consequences. You can take it as a general rule that if it is simple, obvious, and direct it is probably a bad idea. All the simple solutions are already in use. The measures that might actually improve things are almost certainly going to be subtle, complex, indirect, and not at all obvious. That also means they will be difficult if not impossible for most people to understand, and may be impossible to sell. The way most successful reforms get done is that the one person who understands them sells people on trusting him. Most people relate to personalities more than to ideas.

Most people who supported ratifying the U.S. Constitution didn't support it because they understood it. They supported it mainly because George Washington did, and they trusted him. They also expected him to be the first president, and figured that with him in that position, if any problems arose he would take the lead in fixing them.

So read the Draft Amendments. Study them. Learn why they are written that way, and not another way. You may thus acquire the skills you will need to get anything useful done.

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