If you want to try to figure out all the ways the legislature hopes to “help” you this year, you can Google “Colorado legislature,” which will take you to the General Assembly front page. Then, under “Bills,” select “All Bills,” and that should pull up this year’s offerings. You can switch to previous years if you like. You might further sort by ascending number. At this point you might want to smash your head into a wall a few times to prepare you for the pain to come.
When I checked the list on February 2, the first page of results said, “Displaying 1–25 of 297 results.” This includes 273 bills; the rest are memorials and resolutions. This session has only been going since January 9. Last year’s results show 717 items, including 657 bills.
So here is a basic question that people rarely ask: How many normal people are going to read and master 273 bills, never mind 657, to track what the legislature is up to? We all know the answer: zero. What does that say for democratic accountability? Many people will respond that lack of citizen awareness is a feature not a bug; the point of representative government is to allow some people to specialize in legislating.
Here is a follow-on question: How many of the 100 legislators read and master all the bills? At most, the answer is a handful. I would be surprised if a single legislator actually reads and masters all the bills. Granted, many bills die in committee, so legislators specialize by subject. Presumably many legislators read the bills they actually vote on.
Who writes the bills? The naive might answer the legislators. Maybe legislators with law degrees could manage to competently draft a bill unassisted. But they don’t have to, because state government pays a team of bureaucrats in Legislative Services to draft the bills. True, legislators guide the process by relating what they want a bill to do.
If you try to actually read the bills, you’ll find that they typically reference existing statutes. Often you can’t understand a bill unless you also understand how it interacts with laws on the books. So how many legislators do you think have read and mastered all of the existing statutes? My guess is zero, but maybe a few have. Again, mastering the laws on the books is something that the legislature offloads to professional bureaucrats.
If you’d like to try to master the statutes yourself, you can read them online (linked from the legislative page), or, for a mere $535, you can buy your own 26-volume printed set from LexisNexis.
In myth, the citizens direct government by electing wise representatives and by closely monitoring what those lawmakers are up to. In reality, hardly anyone knows what the legislature is up to in any detail. The legislators themselves cannot hope to master all the bills proposed, never mind all the existing statutes that they are charged with overseeing. At most, a regular person—someone with a job or a family—can closely follow a few of the many bills proposed.
I was reminded of the sheer unwieldiness of state government last year when I spent six weeks working on the Independence Institute paper, “The Tax and Regulate Reality Behind Governor Polis’s Libertarian Image.” For this paper, I reviewed a small fraction of the bills offered over the past few years, focusing on ones that passed. I often had the experience of finding an important bill from a previous year that, at the time, I didn’t know about. And part of my job is to write about state politics!
Because hardly anyone follows a given bill, the people who tend to drive the political discussion surrounding a bill tend to be part of an interest group directly affected by it. Here you should be familiar with the phrase from Public Choice economics, “concentrated benefits, dispersed costs.” Many bills subsidize or give regulatory support to a small group of people and impose the costs widely. The few people who benefit are strongly motivated to see the bill passed, whereas the many people shouldering the costs typically lack the incentive even to become aware of the issue.
That is not always the dynamic at play. Sometimes legislators from one party or ideological camp target a specific group of people outside their coalition—such as property owners, drug users, gun owners, or transgender people—because that lets them feel morally superior, makes them popular with their base, and helps them with fundraising.
And sometimes legislators actually pass a bill because it makes sense and improves people’s lives. It does happen!
When I started this column I had the idea of reviewing some of the bills that have been proposed. Honestly, though, I didn’t even know where to start. Hopefully instead I’ve helped to lift the Oz-like curtain to reveal what goes on behind it. Now maybe if we all click our heals three times the legislature will consistently do the right thing.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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