[last updated Sunday, 8pm]
Writing legislation, broadly speaking, isn’t as hard as one might think it is. Covering it should be even easier. Whether a bill is thousands of pages long and rewrites healthcare policy, or a couple paragraphs specifying how to fold the Alaska state flag appropriately, there are certain general rules guiding the construction of any piece of legislation.
- Step one: legislation starts with a preamble, explaining the parts of the bill lawmakers want you to know about.
- Step two: there will be the body of the bill, broken into sections that list each specific change in current law being proposed, and linking to the existing statutes that the bill addresses.
- The final step is the enactment clause, which outlines how and when the law takes effect.
The media, charged with covering bills as they “Schoolhouse Rock” themselves towards becoming law, have the more challenging responsibility of breaking down the bills – translating the legalese, wonkspeak, and just-plain-partisan horse pucky – and explaining what they actually intend to do, what they might unintentionally do, and whether or not they are realistic prescriptions to solve actual problems.
This crucial scrutiny eventually (hopefully) results in a careful and accurate evaluation of suggested policy that will affect our daily lives. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s where the all too important wheels fall. That’s when we lose the protections enshrined in the First Amendment – protections we really, really need.
Something really important to focus on, when reviewing legislation, is that steps one and two don’t always wind up as being compatible with each other. Sometimes the lawmaker who really wants you to like his proposed law will give a nondescript or downright misleading title. There is no rule against using the preamble to make your bill sound better than it is. It’s the hook, after all. But there needs to be a truthiness test, and that test is administered by the reporter disseminating the information to the public.
But what if that test fails to be applied?
Let’s role play.
I am an elected official who is introducing legislation. You are the gumshoe reporter assigned a story on it. I say that it’s a bill about puppies. The preamble to my bill says “An Act establishing a home for all puppies and an ensuing happiness for all Alaskans.”
It’s given rave reviews by the public, because human beings love puppies. As they should.
But you, as the diligent reporter you are, look through the body and notice something. Section 1 of the bill absolutely is designed to provide puppies with a home. But you notice that section 2 goes into what penalties should be applied when someone refuses to open up their home to a new puppy. Perhaps they already have dogs, or are allergic, or fail to have a home. What happens?
Section 2 says: “Upon violation of this law, marijuana shall be legalized in the state, effective within thirty days of the offense.”
Well, now. That was unexpected.
Do you still report this as a law providing a home for puppies? Because, while it does seek to provide a home for puppies, it is clearly also a pretty radical change in drug policy, wrapped up in a nice “how could you argue this?” package.
Choosing to report that the bill is a puppy law – and solely a puppy law – would be dishonest and a disservice to the public depending on your evaluation.
End role play. Back to reality.
House Bill 69 should be the top story in Alaska right now. The legislation, introduced by the Speaker of the House, Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), has been advertised as a gun rights bill. It was introduced in Juneau last Wednesday. ADN put out initial introduction to the gun legislation; KTVA buried a mention of it in a piece about Obama’s proposals pertaining to firearms. By Friday, an Associated Press article covering it made the rounds in the Empire, the ADN, the News Miner, and KTUU. It was five sentences and entitled: “Chenault defends his gun rights bill.”
The problem? This isn’t a gun rights bill.
HB69 is about nullification. That’s not hyperbole; that’s what Representative Chenault called it.
If the proposal were to become law, anything the federal government does regarding the possession or acquisition of a firearm would be ruled invalid by the state of Alaska. Any federal agent attempting to enforce laws enacted by the federal government of the United States would be subject to arrest. Patriotism, according to Chenault, means going over the head of the leader of the free world. Supremacy Clause be damned.
Putting country first doesn’t generally translate to wholly discounting the United States Constitution.
The Speaker admitted that sort of action might be seen by the courts as unconstitutional. In fact, over 200 years of legal precedent holds that Chenault’s bill is a dumb idea, based on the same thin legal opinion used to by Andrew Jackson to defend slavery and laws supporting segregation in the 1950’s.
Over background checks? Over closing the gun show loophole? Over bogey man legislation that has yet to be written?
Sanity has not been given a seat at this table. Neither has a basic understanding of American history – a tool worth equipping in one’s tool belt, especially when holding elected office. Chenault’s actions this week – in the first week of the session – is political malfeasance.
HB69, and the audacity of its petulant author who proposed it with a straight face, should have every citizen wide eyed. It should be leading the nightly news. None of that has happened yet. That absence is concerning.
The notion that a single state has the authority to ignore the laws of the Union is what made possible the Civil War. The immovably thoughtless who cheer this idea on are promulgating a pathology in which the affected can’t recognize death and destruction from the Super Bowl, with the Speaker of the House stoking the fire.
Thus far, the nullification law has been excused by the nightly news, as has its ring leader. We need to speak up about that. This deserves more than a single five sentence AP article.
This is not a ball we can afford to drop.