Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why Congressional Bills Are So Long

Historian John Steele Gordon thinks he knows:

One reason, I cynically suspect, is precisely to make them unreadable...The political elite would rather work in the dark and is confident that the Washington press corps won’t go to the trouble of actually reading a bill that’s longer than War and Peace (and a lot less entertaining). As a political public-relations man once told me, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the work ethic of the average reporter.”
But there are two other reasons. One is that a vast bill makes it easier to sneak in clauses that go unnoticed until they are law...The second reason is Washington’s increasing fascination with global reform rather than piecemeal reform. Only touchdowns, it seems, are now allowed in the game of political football; moving the ball down the field just won’t do.  The health-care debate would have been a lot shorter and a lot less politically divisive had both sides simply agreed to enact those reforms that a substantial majority of each house agreed with — such as of insurance abuses — and then saw what else was needed. Regulating derivatives would be a piece of cake if it were not tied to “financial reform” in general.
From my own experience in writing legislation (10 years in Congress), I'd say that Gordon, who is an excellent financial historian, has it mostly wrong.  

No one ever told us to write bills longer on purpose.  I'd say of the causes he identifies, the last (a preference for global over piecemeal reform) is the soundest.  The reason have more to do with the increasing size of the congressional agenda and the diminishing floor time, meaning that you can't do several bills on one topic any longer.  Once a financial reg bill is done, Congress won't want to take it up again, so everything needs to be loaded into one package.

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