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Why legislation is so long

After the Senate Finance bill had been worked over in committee and amended six ways from Sunday, it was released onto the wilds of the Internet for all citizens to read. That was not a symbolic gesture: The bill (pdf) was 262 pages long and written entirely in plain English. A bit of a slog, but manageable.

Now that the bill has been passed, it's been rewritten into legislative language and posted on the Internet (pdf). It's not 200 pages. It's not 400 pages. It's a bit over 1,500 pages. That's longer even than Hillary Clinton's bill in 1994.

But that's not because it says anything substantially different than the original Senate Finance language. Rather, writing laws is not like writing blog posts, or newspaper articles: It requires an archaic, clunky vernacular that spends a lot of time explaining how one piece of text amends another piece of text, and expends a lot of words clarifying the most technical matters at the most granular level. Legal language requires more words than plain English, just as Chinese uses more characters. When people complain that legislation is slightly longer than a very long book, they're saying something about their understanding of the difference between legal language and plain English, not about the law in question.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 20, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
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Some good old frontier justice might cure some of that BS.

Posted by: par4 | October 20, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

two observations:

1) it's like computer code. View the original HTML of this page and you'll get the idea. It takes a lot of text to tell an automaton (cpu or bureaucrat-lawyer) exactly what to do.

2) it's like a high school term paper: three-inch margins, space-hogging fonts, very repetitive, lots of quotes...

Posted by: ithacanforobama | October 20, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting to hear, "Congress is attempting something too big and complicated to make sense of," touted as a good thing.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 20, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

There's also a huge CYA component. If you write a short, concise, easy-to-read document then everyone can understand it. You're on the hook. See, eg, the Constitution.

But if you muddle it up with hundreds of pages of boilerplate and technicalspeak, the document becomes almost unintelligible to all but the most fluent. Suddenly nobody holds your feet to the fire because nobody knows what you even said. Since our Congress lacks statesmen (or women) we get the latter. Our Representatives and Senators are mostly petty, functionally useless people and this suits them well.

It's the difference between saying "I love you" and trying to say the same thing in 100 words. Only one of those examples gets the message across.

Posted by: simpleton1 | October 20, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Surely a text in Chinese should use fewer characters to say the same thing as in English, not "more characters" as you say, but use a vastly greater variety of characters?

Posted by: WarrenTerra | October 20, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"just as Chinese uses more characters"

Huh? More characters than what? (Chinese uses just one character per word. Even if we grant that the Chinese translation of a phrase may use more words than an English original, the English will still need more characters, because we use three or more, on average, per word. Or are you saying that there are more characters in the Chinese writing system than in the Latin alphabet? If so, not a good analogy for writing law.)

Careful, or I'll sic Language Log on you!

Posted by: vancemaverick | October 20, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

It's less to do with intentionally confusing the public and more to do with making sure there are adequate defenses against challenges. Simple, plain language has too much generality that can be twisted to suit just about any agenda (see above mentions of the Constitution). You want your intentions clear, it takes 1500 words, esp. as Ezra states, to link up with other bits of the law.

Posted by: PPhilly | October 20, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

PPhilly is right.....and even then, after we have the law, we get mountains of temporary, proposed and then final regulations to deal with interpretations that even the 1500 words did not make clear.

Posted by: scott1959 | October 20, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

"if you muddle it up with hundreds of pages of boilerplate and technicalspeak, the document becomes almost unintelligible to all but the most fluent. Suddenly nobody holds your feet to the fire because nobody knows what you even said."

That's one way of looking at it. But if you're in the habit of signing leases written on napkins that read "[NAME] can live at [ADDRESS] for [TIME]" or title transfers on receipts that read "[NAME] now owns [PROPERTY]", then that's your call.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 20, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

It's exceedingly dangerous to do things in such a way that negates the common language in favor of a technical jargon comprehensible only by an elite preisthood-- that doesn't always include those nominally writing the bill.

Posted by: adamiani | October 20, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we should be talking about word count rather than pages, because the formatting makes this seem longer than it really is.

I copied the text from 10 pages of the bill (p. 14-23), pasted it into a Word doc, and deleted all of the line numbers and unnecessary line breaks (i.e., those caused by big margins rather than actual breaks between sections). It came out to about 3.5 pages of actual text (in 12 point Times font with 1-inch margins).

Posted by: Liz_B | October 20, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I realize that some people prefer to think that legislative language is CYA, obtuse, and intended to obscure. But really, if legislation was written in "plain English", it would never be implemented because everybody and their brother would be filing lawsuits challenging the Executive Branch's regulations and policies implementing the legislation. Our contemporary society is very litigious. The reason legislative language is complex and lengthy is because issues the Congress deals with today are VERY complex--not simple. As a result, passing legislation requires detailed and lengthy language to: specify how existing policies and laws are affected; accurately reflect legislative compromises and agreements reached in the process of composing and passing a final bill; give specific guidance to the Exec Branch on legislative intent; and minimize the potential for endless lawsuits that prevent implementation of Congress' intent. I'm sorry, but anyone who thinks "plain English" is desirable or preferable either just does not want to see a law enacted or doesn't understand what it takes to make a law able to be implemented.

Posted by: zippyzeph | October 20, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Legal language does not have to be so complicated but tradition dies hard.

the other problem, as already pointed out, is the control freakish nature of congress. if the constitution was written today it would be hundreds if not thousands of pages long. sometimes it is better to be more general and let interpretation evolve. but that is not the american way, just look at NFL or NBA rules compared to FIFA.

Posted by: PindarPushkin | October 20, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

The comparison to computer code is very apt. However, this suggests that we as a polity should find a way to transition to a sort of 'Legal English 2.0'. Just as nobody programs in assembler anymore, nobody should have to litigate in Legal English 1.0. Could we design and implement a Python for law? The issues we're dealing with are so complex that it seems we need a higher level language to deal with them. Nonetheless, the precision of legal english is still an absolute requirement. Computer scientists have (repeatedly) solved this problem. We should look to their techniques to move forward. LE1.0 is only just suitable for selling a house, and not in any way suitable for designing a national health care infrastructure.

Posted by: hunterw1 | October 20, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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