Josh Marshall's readers suggested that blogs might take some responsibility for collaboratively reading thousand-page legislation and finding outrageous things such as the Istook provision. I think this is a great example of the kind of thing that political blogs ought to be doing post-election. I'm basically all for it.
But we should all understand that it's pretty unusual for a devious provision to be as obvious as "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the chairman of the committee and his staff shall be able to read anyone's tax return." That's about as rare as finding a villain who strokes his long waxed mustache while emitting an evil cackle. The question Istook is probably asking his staff is not "who done it?" but why they were so lazy about writing it that it was left out in the open. It's easy enough to write such a provision that hooks into existing laws in such a way that it would be very difficult for a non-expert reader to understand what it does. In this case, you would find a provision of law that designates a category of people allowed to look at tax returns, and then, without identifying the purpose, amend that subtitle to include some other category, which might also not be identified by name. The provision could just as easily read, "Section 429(b)(7) of the Internal Revenue Code is hereby amended to add the words 'and such legislative designees as identified in Section 567(a)(4).'" That would certainly add at least a half hour to the effort of anyone who wanted to know what it really meant, and it might even appear innocuous.
(This actually deserves a short aside on how laws and amendments are written. For the most part, any legislative language, whether a bill or an amendment, is not written in its final form by staffers to members or committees, but by the legislative counsel for the House and Senate. These are extremely dedicated and unbelievably hard-working lawyers, who, especially in the crunch time at the end of a congressional session do amazing work in turning half-baked ideas into something that sounds legal and resolves any contradictions with existing law. As a staffer, if you take a description to legislative counsel, and what they send back is language that reads, "notwithstanding any other provision of law..." and then repeats whatever you gave them, it means that they regard whatever you're trying to do as vaguely ridiculous or illegal and not worth wasting their time to look up the appropriate legal references.)
But my main point was that Josh's suggestion reminded me of an interesting period when I worked on the Hill: a stretch of 1994-95 when the idea of "reading the bill" became a fetish among a subset of the public. It started with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ross Perot made such a big deal of the idea that he had read every word of NAFTA that congressional offices were deluged with requests for copies of the enabling legislation, which as I recall was about 2400 pages long. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be able to say that they had "read NAFTA" and therefore could tell you authoritatively whether it would lead to prosperity or, as Perot said, "that giant sucking sound" of jobs leaving the U.S.
In some ways, this was an inspiring moment of citizen engagement with the democratic process. But you had to know that it would probably lead to even more cynicism, as these dedicated folks would devote hours of reading only to come away frustrated. That's not because the legislation is deceptive or they're not smart enough, but because all the information you would need to form an intelligent opinion about the likely effects of NAFTA was external: relative wages in the two countries, actual mobility of manufacturing, consumption patterns of Mexicans likely to benefit from NAFTA, etc., etc. It's not that people weren't smart enough to understand NAFTA; rather, they were being misled about the information they needed in order to make an independent judgment about NAFTA. (Another way of making that judgement came from a member of Congress at the time who argued that she learned all she needed to know about NAFTA on a trip south of the border when she saw a chicken walk up to a stream of water, take one sip, and drop dead.)
In short, there's a lot to be said for using the combined intelligence of blogs and their readers to scour legislation for outrageous consequences. But just be prepared that there isn't a lot of low-hanging fruit like the Istook provision, and there will be a need for real expertise on the underlying issues as well as the letter of the law. This is where we really need expert blogs of all kinds -- legal, economic, social policy, specific industries -- and a system by which people who are reading legislation can kick something funny looking up and say, "what would this actually do?"
All this gets to an issue that I want to think about over the next few months: can blogs -- and related networking and knowledge-development tools such as wikis -- help to serve some of the purposes of progressive think tanks, in much the way that networked organizing such as moveon.org replaced some of the organizing role of top-down membership organizations? I think they can, but I don't think it's quite happening yet. I'll have more to say on this.