The Senate Meets the Net

John Podhoretz makes an interesting observation about the role of the Internet in the defeat of the immigration bill in this NY Post article. After explaining that it is unusual for major bills to be defeated in a floor vote because they are usually only allowed to reach the floor if they are certain of passage, Podhoretz points out that comprehensive legislation aimed at complex problems is also very hard to scrutinize:

The bill runs more than 400 pages. In its many sections are many innovations and many revisions of existing law. For almost any lay person outside of government, it might as well be written in Urdu – so indecipherable is the drafting language.

That is by design. These bills aren’t written by the senators who negotiate them, but by the staffers who work for the senators. And since the bill seeks to “reform” existing laws, a lot of it simply makes reference to those laws and says Word A should be changed to Word B.

Consequently the public is usually dependent for their understanding of the bill on what the politicians and the press tell them in summary form. But with the Internet the bill is released as soon as it written – the Congress could hardly keep it secret – and is subject to being “quickly hacked to bits by paid experts, think tankers, lay thinkers, lawyers and logicians.”

I see this impact of the Internet as the kind of effect that McLuhan predicted happens when new media emerge. Just as the printing press eroded the clergy’s exclusive access to the Bible, the Internet makes previously opaque legislation transparent and accessible to all manner of people with the skills to assess its likely impact. A change in media commonly creates unexpected social consequences – just as the LA police discovered when they were recorded beating Rodney King, or any of us might be when caught doing something we assume is private by the many surveillance cameras now in public places.

The second formal factor I see at play here is what Eric Raymond identified in his the Cathedral and the Bazaar as an effect of networks. Unlike mass media which connect people only from the top down networks also connect people from the bottom up. So when the Congress uses the Internet as a distribution network and assumes, as is its habit, that they are simply distributing their bills using a new medium they discover that the Internet works differently. Not only can the public talk back they can talk to each other and quickly form groups and mobilize opposition. Furthermore, the Internet ferrets out the people with the best qualifications to see problems with a particular piece of legislation and simultaneously gives them a platform to make their views known.

With this particular immigration bill evidently a lot of people on both sides of politics saw it as ineffective. I’ll let Podhoretz sum up the how the Internet has changed the rules for our representatives:

This can be a problem for any piece of “comprehensive” legislation, particularly those touching topics on which there is no national consensus. And the immigration bill’s defeat suggests that comprehensive bills of all ideological stripes will be susceptible to citizen revolts.
Senators may pride themselves on making tough choices, but they really don’t like to make tough choices. Yet their tough choices are about to get a lot tougher.


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