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Why Bills Are Long

Whining about the length of a bill is the first refuge of the scoundrel. It's supposed to denote complexity and ambition and overreach. But what it really proves is that legislative language is sort of arcane.

Consider two of the health-care reform bills on the table. The House's proposal, H.R. 3200, and Baucus's America's Healthy Future Act. H.R. 3200 is about 800 pages longer than Baucus's bill. But it's not because it does five times as much. It's because H.R. 3200 is written like a bill while Baucus's draft is written in plain English. As such, H.R. 3200 includes a lot of stuff like this:

(c) General Definitions- Except as otherwise provided, in this division:

(1) ACCEPTABLE COVERAGE- The term ‘acceptable coverage’ has the meaning given such term in section 202(d)(2).

(2) BASIC PLAN- The term ‘basic plan’ has the meaning given such term in section 203(c).

(3) COMMISSIONER- The term ‘Commissioner’ means the Health Choices Commissioner established under section 141.

Baucus's proposal doesn't. It just says the thing it's saying, not the thing lawyers need it to say. But when it's written into a bill, it will have all of that. It'll have wherefores and subsections and this sort of thing:

Section 1171 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1320d) is amended -- (A) in paragraph (7), by striking ‘with reference to’ and all that follows and inserting ‘with reference to a transaction or data element of health information in section 1173 means implementation specifications, certification criteria, operating rules, messaging formats, codes, and code sets adopted or established by the Secretary for the electronic exchange and use of information’;

And that's not because it's become five times more complicated or ambitious. Five times more annoying, maybe, but not five times more ambitious. It's just because legislation is written differently than "Harry Potter." Remember that next time someone complains about bill length.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 22, 2009; 9:02 AM ET
 
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Comments

I remember once being a talk in Berlin about the European Constitution (the pre-Lisbon one that was rejected by France and the Netherlands). Some idiot American dude thought it was the height of commentary to bemoan the length of the document and talk about how awesome the American Constitution was because it was short. A professor in constitutional law completely schooled him. And rightly so. It's a dumb argument.

Posted by: Castorp1 | September 22, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

THANK YOU for this. As somebody who's worked on the Hill, the whole "x thousand page bill" criticism drives me nuts. On the other hand, so does the Finance Committee approach - which assumes that a narrative description can be debated at the same level as legislative text. It definitely makes it easier for the public (and, I'm afraid, Senators) to understand, but legislation is all in the details - I can't tell you the number of times major issues are changes by one word or the placement of a comma. Trusting counsel to come back "after the fact" and get it right seems like the Senators bucking their duty. OK, rant over.

Posted by: JS330 | September 22, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

It's particularly annoying since most of that formalistic gobbledygook just comes down to an 18th century version of a "track changes" function. Literally that whole blockquoted chunk means "replace this line with this text."

Seriously, Congress could probably save thousands of acres of forest just by switching to a shared Google Doc or something.

Posted by: NS12345 | September 22, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

so will Rep. Conyers be able to read Baucus' bill unlike his inability to read HR 3200?

Posted by: visionbrkr | September 22, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I think the total series word count is around a million words. Is ANY of the health-insurance reform bills a million words long?

Posted by: ShermanDorn | September 22, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Castorp1: Perhaps if it hadn't been a hundred page document, it might have been passable.

Ezra: This argument only pushes things back one layer. The question now becomes: why are we encoding our laws in such baroque and arcane language that it becomes functionally impossible to navigate without special training? This doesn't seem very conducive to an informed citizenry.

Posted by: adamiani | September 22, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Just checked H.R. 3200 -- about 165,000 words long. That's longer than each of the first three books in the series and shorter than each of the last four books.

Posted by: ShermanDorn | September 22, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

This topic raises many questions.

Why then, is legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so short? Does a clearly defined goal allow writing of legislation which is less arcane? Why do the plain English statutes of states work so well?

Congressional legislation is lengthy because does generally overreach, needs to hide provisions from casual eyes, needs to capture the goals of all non-natural-persons (ACORN, "big pharma", etc), and needs to be large enough so that subsequent amendments can be described as "modest".

Posted by: rmgregory | September 22, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

As a computer scientist, it is my job to read through and understand standards documents, some of which are hundreds of pages long. I did this with a salary that was half of a congressman's and without the benefit of dozens of staffers. Those of you conservatives here on the internet are benefiting from the fact that professionals are willing to deal with very long, complex documents and understand them.

You know those lawyers whose offices have bookshelves with many many volumes of books? You know what's in those books? Laws.

The only reason people are complaining that HR3200 is "long" is because conservatives were throwing spaghetti at a wall-- they complained about everything. The argument that it was 1000 pages long "stuck" among many of the more dull-witted right wingers-- it's simple, it's fast, and there's no real "reply" to that non-argument, so they were able to repeat it constantly, even though it means nothing. Right wingers needed something to say on the internet and at the dinner table, and the "1000 pages long" complaint gave them something to say that was easy for everyone to grasp.

Posted by: constans | September 22, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I get what you're saying, Ezra. It's technical language, not mean to be read by the layman. But while I'm willing to assume good faith on the part of legislators, a lot of people aren't.

When people ask "why is this text so complicated?" and the answer is "Because that's the way it is - trust us", you can't blame them for being suspicious.

(I'll posit that you can blame them for bad faith, which is where constans is going.)

Posted by: Klug | September 22, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Plus the formatting is key. The 1018 pages of HR3200 are double-spaced, in large text and heavily indented. Convenient if you want to manually markup legislation with interlinear correction/additions but maybe not so much needed in the digital age.

And only the first 175 or so pages of HR3200 are devoted to what most of us would think as 'Health Care Reform' which in the bill is designated as 'Division A', 800 plus pages are devoted to 'Division B' which are revisions to Medicare. Since Medicare exists changes to it require a whole bunch of 'replace X with Y' language in Div B where Div A is just writing the new language outright causing the B section to balloon.

It just does not take that much time to get up to speed by reading the key provisions of HR3200, once that is you get past some of the stylistic oddities of legislative language. I would say that typical word count would be maybe 1/3 of what you would get reading a novel.

What would probably represent a real service is for an alternative version be PDFed in 12 point single spaced text with an index with page numbers, since navigating back and forth through the bill cross-checking Sec 401 with Sec 202 being a scrolling nightmare. But the length of the bill as such is not the issue opponents would have people believe.

Posted by: BruceWebb | September 22, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Castorp1: Yes, the EU Constitution is far superior to ours...

You just made an even dumber argument.

The length of these health care bills is just the start. To actually believe that a klatch of anointed ones can regulate the lives of over 300 million people this way is the height of arrogance coupled with ignorance; a dangerous combination.

And if you believe BS like "bend the cost curve," you are really in the bag.

-- Nietzsche is Dead
http://warskill.blogspot.com/

Posted by: foutsc | September 22, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, even Jon Stewart even pulled this "why is the bill so long" question on The Daily Show a while back (was it to Howard Dean? Not sure...).

I thought a way to answer would be "Jon, your contract should basically be a sentence long: for 3 years Jon Stewart will host The Daily Show and Comedy Central will pay him X dollars."

"Now, how many pages is your contract, Jon?"

Posted by: riffle1 | September 22, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I remember once being a talk in Berlin about the European Constitution (the pre-Lisbon one that was rejected by France and the Netherlands). Some idiot American dude thought it was the height of commentary to bemoan the length of the document and talk about how awesome the American Constitution was because it was short. A professor in constitutional law completely schooled him. And rightly so. It's a dumb argument.
********

actually long constitutions have a significant problem.

i dont want to have a constitution that is so long the average person has no realistic chance of ever reading it all the way through.

in the long run, we're all dead.

Posted by: dummypants | September 22, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

This begs the question as to the necessity of such drafting for legislation. European-style drafting is much closer to the "plain english" form than the form of US drafting (or English drafting).

In fact, the other problem with US drafting is that it is completely execrable - the UK is able to have much more simple to read legislation without resorting to purely purposive European style.

Posted by: albamus | September 22, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"But what it really proves is that legislative language is sort of arcane."

Well, yes, but that's exactly the problem. Moreover, whether it's 200 pages of dense text or 1000 pages of legislative jargon, pretending that the bill's length is due to the fact that it contains definitions is an insult to our intelligence. These bills are long because they cover a large and diverse number of topics.

And how many people know what all of those topics are? Cobbling together a bill in 1000 (or 200) pages means that neither the legislators nor the public knows exactly what is being enacted. It means that legislative authority is being ceded to the lobbyists and lawyers who wrote particular portions of a bill.

Ezra's argument, "shut up," isn't very persuasive. A better approach would be to release understandable summaries of these bills. Presumably legislators are getting such summaries from their staffs in order to their jobs responsibly; those could be released to the public. Or, Ezra could presumably prepare some, since he's apparently confident that he knows everything there is in these bills.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 22, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps bills which are too lengthy to be read by our - oh, so wise! - legislators before they vote on them are a symptom, a signal, if you will. What does this symptom or signal signify, you ask? In my humble opinion, it signifies that they are attempting to legislate some facet or part of human action which is beyond either their wisdom and their Constitutional authority or both. But, no!, that cannot be, as there is no area of human life which is not properly within the scope of their powers. Sorry for bothering you all with simplistic old-fashioned nonsense.

Posted by: Lloyd47 | September 22, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I don't object to the length, rather, I object to the lack of clarity.
Most documents that are long and complex have a summary or an abstract that gives you the essence, without all the legalese. If you can't reduce the essence of the reform bill to a handful of pages, you are going to have trouble selling it to the American people.
Another thing - when people see the length of the bill, they are worried a) about what may be hidden in it and b) that many of the legislators are going to vote on it without having read it. After TARP and (especially) the stimulus bill, can you say this is unjustified?

Posted by: invention13 | September 22, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

*A better approach would be to release understandable summaries of these bills.*

That is what journalists are supposed to do. You also have the chairman's mark, which is about 200 pages long (I assume that's what you're referring to).

*Cobbling together a bill in 1000 (or 200) pages means that neither the legislators nor the public knows exactly what is being enacted.*

Well, it's their job to know. Normal working professionals and even college students have to slog through hundreds of pages of text regularly. Many of us don't even have dozens of staffers at our disposal to aid in such things. Saying "it's too long" is just a mindless attempt to shut down debate.

Posted by: constans | September 22, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, perhaps you could you use your access to actually speak with the people who are actually writing these bills. Not the legislator, the poor staff attorney who sits down with a laptop and types legislative arcana, after hearing Senator Kennedy, Baucus, whomever, saying "Today, I want to reform health care!"

What does that dude do? What does the meeting look like? What does her scratchpad look like? (Bullet two: must have public option, must compete with private insurance.)

Posted by: Klug | September 22, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

@constans, I agree that reading these bills are somewhat like reading any technical document. The "length" of something is hardly a measure of its quality.

However, the technique used of describing edit changes in the text _with_ text makes it near-impossible to understand. In technical standards, we use techniques like change-bars and strikeouts to show where things change. This lets the text still be generally read as a whole.

For example, an instruction like, "replace the word, 'is' in Part I, Section A, Subpart B, Paragraph 3a with 'is not' " could obviously have a tremendous impact on the meaning of a law, but to understand it, the reader has to go look up the cited section and read it.

Do that for a 1,000+ pages, and one winds up with a bill that is all but impenetrable to _any_ reader, expert or otherwise. Now give everybody just a few hours to absorb all that before they vote on it, and the whole process really begins to look fishy.

I, too, use technical documents all the time in my work. The purpose of technical language is to remove ambiguity. The way Congress crafts bills appears to enhance ambiguity.

Posted by: dmarney | September 22, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

As already observed, the "devil is in the details" -- and guess where those niggling and [sometimes] nasty details are all too frequently buried!

Document length (as any good editor knows) is - or should be - about the minimum required verbiage to adequately clarify the intent and implementation of legislation.

The more appropriate (correct) questions in this regard are:

* Is the wording neither longer, nor more complex than absolutely necessary?

* Is the intent/implementation accessible to and understandable by any competent reader?

* Is there any remaining [avoidable] potential for provisions to be misunderstood, misconstrued or mis-applied?

* Does the legislation accomplish the intent of the legislators - and represent the best interests of their constituents -
rather than the preferences, pecadillos or convenience of the drafters?

Whether seemingly interminably complex or blissfully short and direct, the ultimate test of well-written legislation is
consistent clarity of interpretation and application after the fact - not the document's length or apparent complexity.

In that regard - only time will tell!

Posted by: jerswing | September 22, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

"Saying 'it's too long' is just a mindless attempt to shut down debate."

Arguing for greater transparency and public participation is not shutting down debate.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 22, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

May be so, but that still doesn't make it o.k. If legislation has to be thousands of pages long, then break health care change it into smaller pieces so that the public can understand one piece at a time.

I know, we the public don't care about the thousand page highway bill, or agriculture bill, etc. even though they can affect us just as much.

But we do care about the details of the health care bill for some reason, so the thousand pages, wham - bam - you got a new thousand pages of laws m'am approach won't work.

Posted by: etin | September 22, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

*Arguing for greater transparency and public participation is not shutting down debate.*

Saying the bill is too long is not arguing for greater transparency. It's an argument that we need to ignore the bill because it's "too long."

*But we do care about the details of the health care bill for some reason, so the thousand pages, wham - bam - you got a new thousand pages of laws m'am approach won't work.*

No one thought to be concerned until people, intent on opposing health care reform, told them that this was a specific reason to oppose it. *That's not a good reason*. If you can't come up with a better reason, then it's because you don't have anything to say.

Posted by: constans | September 22, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Let's put it this way: if the 'replace X with Y in clause Z' language were to be swapped out for a model where the amended bits of existing laws were written out in full, the bill would probably be ten times as long, and the 'it's too long' people would still be complaining.

The other point, made by Steve Benen, is that the length of bills has grown as the use of procedural blocking tactics has increased. Splitting legislation into smaller bills just gives the opposition more time to gum up the legislative calendar.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_08/019629.php

(For what it's worth, HR676 is a short bill.)

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | September 22, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

"Those of you conservatives here on the internet are benefiting from the fact that professionals are willing to deal with very long, complex documents and understand them."

You know who those professional people are? Lawyers. And our doctors would have to pay lawyers $500 to $1,000 per hour to interpret such a monstrosity as HR 3200. That's just the beginnning. It doesn't include the tens of thousands of pages of regulations that would follow, which is were the real day-to-day rules are found.

You know who will end up paying for all this? You got it. You know who the only people are who are guaranteed to profit from all of this? Lawyers.

"You know those lawyers whose offices have bookshelves with many many volumes of books? You know what's in those books? Laws."

Actually, most of those books are full of cases, not statutes, and the rules to be taken from those cases (the only really important parts) form a tiny fraction of what's in those books. It's not very environmentally friendly, so to speak. Moreover, those volumes of books are generally there for show, usually in cheesy plaintiff-lawyer ads. In real life, lawyers don't waste the money to have their own volumes of those books in their offices. The books that form our U.S. Code (our federal statutes) are surprisingly few in number given the size of our government and the age of our republic.

"The only reason people are complaining that HR3200 is 'long' is because conservatives were throwing spaghetti at a wall-- they complained about everything"

No, the reason people are complaining is because it's generally worse to get jacked by a very long piece of crappy legislation than it is to get jacked by a very short piece of crappy legislation.

It's interesting that you seem to make a distinction between "professional" and "conservative," because there are many, many of us who are both. And we're generally mature enough to make opposing arguments without devolving into name-calling of the opposition.

Posted by: HookInMouth | September 22, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

If it's written in language too long and complex to understand, there's every reason for me to believe our lawmakers have not actually read it and that NOBODY really knows what's in it. You could say that about most pieces of legislation... the people who vote on them don't actually know what's in them. Shouldn't that scare the heck out of us all? What does it say about the "social contract" if it is completely unintelligible to the ordinary people who are expected to live by the law?

Posted by: afpre42 | September 22, 2009 8:53 PM | Report abuse

These bills are really implemented by the unaccountable bureaucrats who decipher the language and formulate rules and regulations. Absolutely no one can predict the final outcome of the legislation. Government is way too big and way too complicated.

Posted by: cek100248 | September 22, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

Why has nobody mentioned REIMBURSEMENT? If you deal with healthcare in the US you deal with reimbursement - being paid for providing healthcare. Google ICD-9M and CPT4.

The text of HR3200 reads very similar to typical reimbursement. It's not difficult, we as a nation have clerks with high school educations, not attorneys, dealing with this all the time.

This know-nothingism is pathetic.

Just because you are incapable of understanding language outside your area of expertise does not mean it should be dumbed down. Any modern advanced technology requires an ability to convey and comprehend complex information. Do you really want the operations and maintenance manual for a 747 to be 1 page? Or a set of airline transport rated pilot training manuals to be 10 pages?

The support manuals for a new medical device we're creating will easily top 1,000 close-spaced paged. Your life will depend on it, do you want us to make it 1 page?

Posted by: boscobobb | September 23, 2009 1:24 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and I'd add that all UK Bills, and ultimately Acts, come with explanatory notes.

Posted by: albamus | September 23, 2009 2:23 AM | Report abuse

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