Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 25, 2009

IS THE REFORM BILL TOO LONG?.... The right has come up with plenty of criticisms of health care reform proposals, some more substantive than others. One of the weaker complaints: the legislation is long, and conservatives don't want to read the whole thing.

This is a surprisingly common complaint. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for example, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard alum, said last week, "I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills." A wide variety of his cohorts have raised the same concern.

The usual retort is that bill length is irrelevant to bill quality. The "Harry Potter" books are apparently pretty long, and those who say, "I have a fundamental problem with any 700-page books" come across as kind of silly.

That said, is there anything to these complaints? Is the reform bill unusually long? Not really. Christopher Beam had a good piece on this the other day.

[M]ajor spending bills frequently run more than 1,000. This year's stimulus bill was 1,100 pages. The climate bill that the House passed in June was 1,200 pages. Bill Clinton's 1993 health care plan was famously 1,342 pages long. Budget bills can run even longer: In 2007, President Bush's ran to 1,482 pages.

Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)

Bills are getting longer because they're getting harder to pass. Increased partisanship over the years has meant that the minority party is willing to do anything it can to block legislation -- adding amendments, filibustering, or otherwise stalling the lawmaking process. As a result, the majority party feels the need to pack as much meat into a bill as it can -- otherwise, the provisions might never get through.

What's more, if you've ever seen the physical page of a bill in Congress, you know that it doesn't look like a traditional printed page. As one of Matt's readers noted yesterday, "Nobody ever mentions that bills have very few words on each page. They're double spaced, there are huge margins, every line is numbered -- it ends up working out to only 150 words a page or so. The HC bill may be long, but it's the equivalent of a 300 or 400-page book, tops."

I suppose there's a reasonable case to be made that shorter bills might be more accessible to the general public, and the typical American won't bother with a 1,000-page bill. Perhaps. But legislation isn't really prepared for a lay audience anyway -- it's often filled with technical and legal jargon, which is necessary for it to be implemented as intended.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone starts whining about the size of the reform bill. There are legitimate concerns about the legislation. This isn't one of them.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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Posted by: TonyB on August 25, 2009 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

Granted it's a federal bill that enables provincial legislation, but the Canada Health Act which covers medicare is about sixteen pages long. But then it has to have the text in both official languages. If all you have to do is say, "We cover everything. We will pay for it out of our general tax revenues" it's easy to write a short bill.

Posted by: Art Hackett on August 25, 2009 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

No mystery. This crap appeals to the lowest level of the Republican base, which can't finish reading a cereal box. Anything with too many multisyllabic words in it must be a plot to confuse Real Americans. And Harry Potter is a front for Satan.

Posted by: shortstop on August 25, 2009 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

"I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills."

I have a fundamental problem with budget alternatives that contain no numbers.

Posted by: oh my on August 25, 2009 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

From now on, print Vitter's copy on legal paper, single spaced, edge to edge, with a 7 point font. Problem solved.

Posted by: doubtful on August 25, 2009 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

"I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills."

I have a fundamental problem with budget alternatives that contain no numbers.

Did I fail to mention? I have a fundamental problem with 19 page budget proposals with no numbers.

Republican = Willfully Ignorant

Posted by: oh my on August 25, 2009 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

My Blackberry's user manual is 250 pages of ten-point font. Boo hoo hoo.

Posted by: RSA on August 25, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps there is an opportunity here for Democrats. They could clean up the bill with some understandable language and publish it as a book.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope on August 25, 2009 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK


Vitter:
"I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills."

Well, I have a fundamental problem with any Senator who doesn't resign after it emerges that he'd sooner spend 1,000 bucks to have a prostitute dress him in diapers than read 1,000 pages as part of his highly-paid job.

Posted by: Richard on August 25, 2009 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

I have a fundamental problem with clients of prostitutes who think their shit don't stink. Maybe that's why they prefer diapers.

Posted by: Breezeblock on August 25, 2009 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Vitter would prefer a bill that was only as long as his fidelity to his wife?

Posted by: biggerbox on August 25, 2009 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

How many 1000 page bills in the past did Vitter vote for and not complain about its length?

Posted by: GBBound on August 25, 2009 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

On further reflection, I don't see this resonating with the base. Senator Vitter needs to relate this line of attack to Jesus somehow.

For example, if Jesus had made a paper airplane from a page of this bill ever week of his life, well, he would have gotten through it long before being crucified according to most historians.

Or maybe if Jesus turned each page of the bill into a loaf of bread, he'd have a shit load of bread.

Posted by: doubtful on August 25, 2009 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Remind me again how many pages was the PATRIOT Act and how quickly it went through Congress and how many critters actually read it.

Posted by: martin on August 25, 2009 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

I thought they had staffers who summarize this stuff for them.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on August 25, 2009 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

I dunno. Sometimes complex things are complex; in the process engineering world I certainly read my share of 500-page specs (with a lot more words that the reported size of a Congressional bill page).

OTOH, many times length and complexity in a document exists to hide weapons-grade bullshyte. I have never seen a powerpoint more than 10 slides long that conveyed any useful information, nor a corporate reorganization document longer than (3 pages + 1 straightforward org chart) that had any chance of working.

And I would be very curious to know how long the enabling legislation (and then the associated regulations) is for the German health care system. My understanding (and of course I could be wrong) is that that system is very simple and straightforward which leads directly to its effectiveness and efficiency.

Germany enacted the California EPA auto emissions regulations as written, and South Korea generally enacts most or all of the US civilian nuclear regulatory code as its civilian nuclear code. Why don't we just copy the German law and enact it directly?

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 25, 2009 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

I wonder whether Vitter refused to do the assigned reading in college if the book was too long.

Reading long and boring bills is what you were hired to do, and if you can't do it, then your staff can do it and summarize.

Just for good measure, the law called MMA in which the Medicare Part D program was adopted runs to 415 pages, single spaced. Then, of course, Vitter didn't have to read that, because George Bush told him to be a good boy and vote for it whatever it said.

These people are complete frauds.

Posted by: Barbara on August 25, 2009 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

I think the proper comparison is not with a budget bill, which is actually concise given all that needs to be in it, but with H.R.676, the 30-page single-payer bill -- and not because H.R. 676 uses language more economically than the fix-private-health-insurance bills, but because a single-payer system is a far simpler concept.

A few days ago, Howard Fineman reminded us that Clintoncare failed not because it was drafted behind closed doors, but because its "almost lunatic complexity" made it impossible to explain, let alone defend.

What's lunatic this time around is not just the complexity of the thousand-page bills, but the failure of the Democrats to learn anything useful from the Clintoncare debacle. What happened under Bill Clinton was tragedy. What's happening under Obama is approaching farce.

Posted by: James Conner on August 25, 2009 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

Seems like we just got the perfect justification for splitting health insurance reform into two bills and ramming them through the Senate via the reconciliation process. "The GOP senators couldn't stomach a 1,000 page document, so we split it into two 500 page documents so the GOP would be able to read them in stages..."

Posted by: danimal on August 25, 2009 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK
. . . the typical American won't bother with a 1,000-page bill.

News flash. The typical American won't bother with a 2.5 page bill either.

Posted by: noncarborundum on August 25, 2009 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

Then how about yanking the 65+ ammendments that Republicans added to the bill? You know, the bill that Senators Boehner, McConnell, Kyl, McCain, Lieberman, Graham, and Rep. Cantor and others in the House whine about not being a "bipartisan" bill? That one!

The BS about 1,000-page bills and Obama's not giving legislators enough time to read every page is pure, unadulterated bunk! "Too much, too soon, too fast" has become the conservatives' mantra. Just like "fiscal conservatism" and "generational debt," we ever heard a peep about it during the Bush years. Legislator don't read every single page of a bill! They have staff members for that who boil it all down to a summary before they have to cast their votes. Unfortunately, this
meme has taken hold. It appeals to the older folks and nutjobs who feel that young whipper-snapper Obama is trying to pull one over on us "real" Americans.

Posted by: Carol A on August 25, 2009 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

The bill is typed like typical deposition transcripts: double spaced with wide margins. The word count is what matters: it is around 3000 words or so, far less than War and Peace. And if you need to, there's a fine summary of the bill on my website that lays it all out in black and white with absolutely no political cant to it.

Posted by: moe00 on August 25, 2009 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

Why don't we just copy the German law and enact it directly? -Cranky Observer

You can't go to a town hall without seeing Swastikas and Obama as Hitler signs and you're advocating copying the German law? I wonder what that would do to the dining room tables?

I've actually wondered this same thing, though. There are working models, tried and tested, all over the world, yet Obama and his team constantly use the phrase 'uniquely American,' which, while it makes a great anytime, anywhere drinking game, is jingoistic enough to make me cringe.

Posted by: doubtful on August 25, 2009 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

Considering the level of understanding of foreign systems, I'm pretty sure Obama and his team could translate the German bill into English and claim that it is uniquely American anyway. I don't know why it's only Republicans who think it's okay to take advantage of ignorance in order to accomplish something.

Posted by: Barbara on August 25, 2009 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Senator Vitter seems kind of late to this game. One of the favorite arguments in libertarian diatribes against laws and regulations in Europe, especially those originating from the EU, is that they are so long and detailed, when the founders in the US managed a whole constitution with just a few pages.

Posted by: SRW1 on August 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

The idea of just simply translating 'the German bill' is kind of hilarious. The system in Germany developed over a number of decades and the laws and rules governing it have been amended a couple of times. I'm pretty sure that even in narrowly spaced print the whole package would run into way more than 1100 pages.

In addition, legalese in German is infamous for being understandable only to the most hardened members of the bureaucrats and lawyers guilds.

Posted by: SRW1 on August 25, 2009 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

"No mystery. This crap appeals to the lowest level of the Republican base, which can't finish reading a cereal box."

That applies to many of the democrats in congress who haven't read the bill either.

Its not the length of the bill, its the lack of clarity. The fact that the crazy wing of the GOP has gained traction is precisely because the democrats have been so lousy at getting their message out.

Posted by: ian on August 25, 2009 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

My only point to add to the bs of the R's is that I sometimes have to read bills. THe 2005 energy act was a real page turner. But after you take out the whereases and let now be saids, the language that is required to make it compatible or supercede preceding bills, the core of most bills is not that hard to read. And, maybe the R's might get a new version of Acrobat - you know, with the "search" thingy ....

Posted by: bigwisc on August 25, 2009 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Its [sic] not the length of the bill, its the lack of clarity.

No argument that the Dems have bungled the message, but instead of repeating whiny and purposely vague right-wing talking points, why don't you cite some of the specific passages you feel lack clarity?

Posted by: shortstop on August 25, 2009 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK
. . . why don't you cite some of the specific passages you feel lack clarity?

Well, there's the passage that authorizes the creation of death panels to pull the plug on grandma, for one. That one's so unclear that most observers can't even figure out that that's what it's about.

Posted by: noncarborundum on August 25, 2009 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

What a load of cr*p. I looked thru HR 3200, available here: http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h3200/text
to check on certain sections relevant to an email I received to see if the sections really said what the writers of the email claimed (they didn't). I must have looked through 20 or 30% of the bill in just a couple of hours. It really isn't anything like a novel of 1000 pages. Take a peek for yourself.

Posted by: Hannah on August 25, 2009 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

Wonder why the ignorant public is confused and misfinformed? There is NO single BILL as your lead suggests...I assume you mean HR3200. WORDS MATTER and what passes for discourse/debate/discussion is not served by the casual manner in which most in all areas of "media" speak/write/post their opinion pieces. Little attempt is made to really provide factual, clear, and concise information for those still at a 3rd grade reading level to take in and process...earlier there was some wondering that the "process" of democracy works at all...I'd say it's just "a sliver" of it that does...

Posted by: Dancer on August 25, 2009 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK


How long is the Bible again?

Posted by: royalblue_tom on August 25, 2009 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

On May 17, 2005, Vitter voted for the federal highway bill, H.R. 3 (109th Cong.). See: http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=109&session=1&vote=00125
The engrossed version passed by the Senate was 1346 pages: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=109_cong_bills&docid=f:h3eas.txt.pdf

Posted by: LMA on August 25, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

How long is the Bible again? -royalblue_tom

The one the Gideons gave me is about 3.5 inches long by 2.5 inches wide. Maybe 3/4 of an inch thick.

Posted by: doubtful on August 25, 2009 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK
There are working models, tried and tested, all over the world, yet Obama and his team constantly use the phrase 'uniquely American,' which, while it makes a great anytime, anywhere drinking game, is jingoistic enough to make me cringe.
Me, too—it isn't even an argument.

The reason Obama is looking for a "uniquely" American decision is that no other country with a national health care system allows for-profit insurance for its primary care.

Of course, as President Obama said, at his news conference on July 22

…we know that we're spending, on average -- we here in the United States -- are spending about $6,000* more than other advanced countries where they're just as healthy. And I've -- I've said this before. If you found out that your neighbor had gotten the same car for $6,000 less, you'd want to figure out how to get that deal…
Yeah, you'd want to, wouldn't you?

According to T.R. Reid of the Frontline show "Sick Around the World," the US acts—uniquely—as anti-example: "All over the world, people say that. If you complain about health care, they say well, you want to move to America? You think that's better?"

*Actually, the national health expenditure was $7290 per capita for the US, as compared to the OECD average of $2964, as of 2007.

Posted by: Jeff W on August 25, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

The one the Gideons gave me ...

Admit it, you "borrowed" it from a hotel, 'cause of the numbers for hookers on the flysheet!

Almost every version of the bible is over 1000 pages. Does Vitter have a "fundamental problem" with the Bible? "... way to hide unpleasant details ... is to write lengthy ..." If only the Bible was cut down to just Genesis, the Flood, the Nativity, and Easter, it would remove all those "unpleasant" biblical details!

Posted by: royalblue_tom on August 25, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Do you think it would help to put it in comic book format or would that be too long for the short attention span congress, too?

Posted by: Schtick on August 25, 2009 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

blankwww tgcg honduras religions violation ansi dreezsen novo bipartisan fail

Posted by: buy valium 2 mg on September 14, 2009 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

How long is the Bible? Well, the Bible is different.

With the Bible, you accept it and live by it, you go to heaven. You reject it or live as a hypocrite and you go to hell.

With long Trojan horse legislation, the legislators accept it and the country goes to hell. The legislators reject it and the country goes to heaven.

Posted by: Dan on November 12, 2009 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

How long is the Bible? Well, the Bible is different.

With the Bible, you accept it and live by it, you go to heaven. You reject it or live as a hypocrite and you go to hell.

With long Trojan horse legislation, the legislators accept it and the country goes to hell. The legislators reject it and the country goes to heaven.

Posted by: dan on November 12, 2009 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

I can't help but suspect they make the bills long so they can more easily pack pork into it. The longer it is, the less likely someone will uncover the pork and waste.

And another problem I have is when there is little time to read the bill before voting. The longer the bill, the more time they must give us all to go through it!

Posted by: SmartKat on December 5, 2009 at 11:35 PM | PERMALINK

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was 10 pages long. How far Democrats have come, eh?

Posted by: lv toth on March 15, 2010 at 7:52 AM | PERMALINK

Here's a funny quote to make you smile :)
I poured Spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone. :)

Posted by: Brigette Wisor on August 26, 2010 at 6:29 AM | PERMALINK
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