What role should the realities of the legislative drafting process play in the theories and doctrines of statutory interpretation and administrative law? The ongoing debates frequently turn on empirical assumptions about how Congress drafts and what interpretive rules Congress knows, but there has been almost no testing of whether any of these assumptions reflect legislative reality. We have attempted to fill that void. This is the first of two Articles reporting the results of the most extensive empirical study to date — a survey of 137 congressional counsels drawn from both parties, both chambers of Congress and spanning multiple committees — on topics ranging from drafters’ knowledge and use of the textual and substantive canons of interpretation, to legislative history, the administrative law deference doctrines, the legislative process and the Court-Congress relationship.
Our findings have implications for virtually every swath of the interpretive debates. We can report, for instance, that there are some canons that our drafters know and use — Chevron and the presumption against preemption, for example, but that there are other canons that our drafters know, but consciously reject in favor of political or other considerations, including the presumption in favor of consistent usage, the rule against superfluities, and dictionary use; and still other canons, like Mead and noscitur a sociis, that our drafters do not know as legal rules but that seem to be accurate judicial reflections of how Congress drafts. Our interviews also elicited a treasure trove of information about key influences on the drafting process that legal doctrine rarely considers, from the variety of audiences for legislative history, to the way in which the personal reputation of particular agency heads affects delegation decisions, to the fact that drafting conventions depend on the type of statute being drafted and its path through Congress.
All of these findings, and many others, allow us to press for a more precise answer to one of the fields’ foundational questions: that is, what should be the purpose of these canons of interpretation? Judges, often using the unhelpful generalization that they are Congress’s “faithful agents,” have legitimized these doctrines using a variety of conflicting justifications, some of which turn on empirical reality, some of which do not, and most of which aim to justify many different types of canons that seem to be doing very different types of work. Do the canons reflect how Congress actually drafts, and so effectuate legislative supremacy? Or do judges use the canons for more dialogical reasons, such as to encourage Congress to draft more precisely — and does Congress listen? Might the canons, despite how "neutral" some appear, instead be understood to effectuate judicial values that are external to the legislative process — such as advancing constitutional norms or imposing coherence on the U.S. Code? Our study illuminates this variety across the normative bases for the canons also reveals that each set of justifications rests on a very different vision of the judicial power and the Court-Congress relationship.