Political Animal


June 08, 2011 4:30 PM The GOP’s preoccupation with bill lengths

By Steve Benen

About two years ago, Republicans decided one of the biggest problems with the Democrats’ health care reform proposal was the number of pages in the legislation. Even now, it’s still a common complaint — the law must be flawed, the right argues, because it was long.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain picked up on this theme while campaigning in Iowa this week.

“Don’t try to pass a 2,700 page bill — and even they didn’t read it! You and I didn’t have time to read it. We’re too busy trying to live — send our kids to school. That’s why I am only going to allow small bills — three pages. You’ll have time to read that one over the dinner table.”

This is deeply odd. It’s true that most of the public is pretty busy and Americans generally don’t have time to read legislation. It’s why we have a representative democracy — we can’t evaluate every proposed measure, so we “hire” (i.e., elect) professional lawmakers (i.e., members of Congress) to do it for us.

And sometimes, when these professional lawmakers and their staffs address national needs, their proposals get pretty long. That’s to be expected. We live in an advanced 21st-century superpower, and legislation often deals with complex issues. 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.

There is, I’m afraid, no way to squeeze legislative text into a CliffsNotes-style bill for those who tire of reading after a few pages.

I guess that’s what irks me most about this incessant preoccupation with bill length — it reeks of anti-intellectualism. The Republicans who complain the loudest aren’t even trying to hide their disdain for depth and detail. “Just dumb it down for us,” they seem to be saying. “We can’t be bothered to, you know, read and stuff.”

But sometimes, powerful people working on important measures need to care enough about substance to write detailed proposals. Car makers can’t put together a blueprint for a new model in three pages or less. Scientific researchers can’t publish a study on life-saving medication in three-pages or less. It doesn’t mean the cars and/or medicine lack value, just because the typical American couldn’t read the descriptions at the dinner table.

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. There are huge margins, a large font, and everything is double-spaced. Legislation may look enormous, but be fairly manageable. (This blog post would take up more than one legislative page, for example.)

If we rely on word counts as a more accurate measurement of length, the Affordable Care Act was about as long as Sarah Palin’s first book — and “Going Rogue” wasn’t exactly an endless tome. And yet, the ACA has somehow become the Republican standard for “Too Big To Read.”

So perhaps the right can pick something new to whine about? Meaningful legislation generally requires lots of pages. There’s nothing wrong with this.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • martin on June 08, 2011 4:37 PM:

    As an example, maybe Mr Cain can draw us up a 3 page military budget.

  • Walsh44 on June 08, 2011 4:43 PM:

    Marketresearch.com will sell you the FFD/UFOC (Franchise Disclosure Document / Uniform Franchise Disclosure Circular) for Cain's Godfather's Pizza for $199. It's 200 pages long.

  • jsjiowa on June 08, 2011 4:45 PM:

    Thank you for an intelligent post about a topic that few people really understand.

    I spent 8 years drafting legislation for the state legislature, and drafted very few bills that could meet a 3 page limit. By the time you include definitions and try to plan for contingencies, and harmonize the new language with existing Code provisions, most bills (even for simple concepts) can take quite a few pages. It's about quality, not quantity.

    Anyone who has ever seriously worked on a detailed piece of legislation would understand this; Cain is either just looking for a sound bite, or he doesn't have the requisite experience, or both.

  • T2 on June 08, 2011 4:50 PM:

    the "too many pages" thing is a GOP Strawman. If Affordable Care was 1 page long, the GOP response would have been no different.

  • linus bern on June 08, 2011 4:53 PM:

    I've never seen a contract that was under three pages. Even software agreements are longer than that.

  • Huntly on June 08, 2011 4:55 PM:


  • DAY on June 08, 2011 4:58 PM:

    And yet they have no problem at all with mortgage and credit card agreements- printed in a typeface formerly used to engrave the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin.

    pin heads!

  • Gummo on June 08, 2011 5:01 PM:

    Of course the GOP is obsessed with bill length.

    It's jealousy.

    You know what they say, long bill, long....

    (What, too soon?)

  • Tom W on June 08, 2011 5:03 PM:

    If an idea is too complicated to fit on a bumper sticker it's too complicated for Herman Cain.

  • POed Lib on June 08, 2011 5:07 PM:

    Too long.

    Too many words.

    Some words have more than one syllable.

    That's wrong.

    We're Americans here. Our words are simple and direct. They are not big and complicated. If you want big, go to the Grand Canyon. But for the legislation, we want little.

  • POed Lib on June 08, 2011 5:08 PM:

    And if we want fucking morons, we go to the source: The Repukeliscum Party, the Party of People With Little Brains.

  • mcc on June 08, 2011 5:09 PM:

    You can download the PDF, if you use ctrl-F it's pretty easy to navigate around the document. It's actually really easy to read the thing if you just get a computar.

  • akaBruno on June 08, 2011 5:13 PM:

    Reminds me of what Emperor Joseph II said to Mozart in Amadeus, "there are simply too many notes, that's all."

  • navamske on June 08, 2011 5:27 PM:

    What's with this "Thatís why I am only going to allow small bills ó three pages" crap? Is he not aware that legislation originates in the legislative, not the executive, branch? Or is he saying that Congress should send him bills of only three pages or fewer, that he'll refuse to read anything that's longer? That'll work out real well -- he probably doesn't even know that if the president takes no action on a bill for ten days, it becomes law (unless the Congress has adjourned during those ten days) anyway. What a maroon.

  • Ron Byers on June 08, 2011 5:30 PM:

    Actually I understand were they are coming from. One of the worst pieces of legislation I ever read was the 2005 bankruptcy bill. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act was long and poorly written. It contained dangling paragraphs. It created more problems than it solved. It was supposed to help credit card companies, but the auto company and domestic relations lobbyists were better treated. American citizens were screwed at every turn. The cost of taking a bankruptcy doubled. Bells and whistles intended to punish people who declared bankruptcy were added that made no sense then and less now. It was one of the most reviewed bills in history, but I am convinced nobody in authority actually read and understood the bill before voting for it.

    BAPCPA is just one example of the countless other exceedingly long and poorly written and even less understood bills that move through Congress every year. On reflection I think excessive length leads to a lack of understanding by our congressmembers and their staffs and even less understanding by our media and the general public.

    There is no way many pieces of legislation can be reduced to two pages. Length is necessary, but there is no reason legislation needs to be slopped together and poorly understood by everyone involved.

  • Al Swearengen on June 08, 2011 5:30 PM:

    What's next? Every bill has to be printed in the Wingnutdings font?

  • bleh on June 08, 2011 5:41 PM:

    Oh please, Republicans are a bunch of old size queens, everyone knows that.

    Girls, let me remind you of something: it's not how big it is, it's what you do with it.

  • John Doe on June 08, 2011 5:43 PM:

    You're wrong on this one, Steve. I don't disagree that governing is complicated, but overly verbose laws and bills keep the public in the dark and make it easier to drop in little loopholes that make lobbyists tingle. Amidst Cain's playing to the base is a decent idea; make public affairs less dense and more accessible. That way, it's harder to spin or interpret and easier to get directly from the source, without being spoon fed opinion with scant kernels of fact.

  • meander on June 08, 2011 5:53 PM:

    Back during the debate about the ACA, one of the best arguments against this bill length nonsense was a bill that consisted of: "As of (some date), all American citizens are eligible to sign up for Medicare, regardless of age." You might need a page to instruct various agencies to update regulations a bit, but it would be short, would provide universal coverage, and would draw unanimous opposition from the GOP even with its short length.

  • June on June 08, 2011 5:59 PM:

    Will someone please bring the Republicans out of the dark ages and show them how to use the "Ctl+F" feature? Problem solved.

  • zeitgeist on June 08, 2011 6:15 PM:

    Walsh44 beat me to one of my examples, but the other is that the employee handbook is, for all purposes, the "law" of a particular workplace. Any bets on whether the Godfathers Pizza employee handbook when Cain was CEO was 3 pages or less?

    Any bets on whether any of our useless media will ever confront him with it?

  • MuddyLee on June 08, 2011 6:46 PM:

    How long is Herman Cain's will? Or the wills of his benefactors the Koch brothers? How long is a King James Bible or a Harry Potter novel? By Cain's standards, most of Palin's run-on sentences are too long.

  • Stephen Stralka on June 08, 2011 8:12 PM:

    A lot of these long bills don't have any pictures in them either, do they? No wonder Republicans hate them. Besides, the longer the bill is, the greater the chances that actual (gasp!) experts were involved in writing it. You know that can't be good.

  • justaguy2 on June 08, 2011 9:08 PM:

    And all meetings have to end by 4:30 because we're too busy catching the early bird specials.

    And you can be shot by walking on the White House lawn.


  • Redshift on June 08, 2011 11:40 PM:

    Making law less arcane and more understandable is a perfectly reasonable goal, but fixating on the length of a bill is the equivalent of legislating pi to be 3 -- rather than actually dealing with complexity, it is the fantasy that we can just wish complexity away.

  • EnoughIsEnough on June 09, 2011 12:57 AM:

    Colbert showed just how silly Cain's comments about the size of the bill were - really silly.

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  • mr. irony on June 09, 2011 7:56 AM:

    GOP wrote 5 of 10 longest bills - Politico 11/25/09

    Five of the top 10 longest bills in the past decade were written by Republicans.

    In fact, the House health care bill is a mere 68 words shorter than a transportation measure introduced in '05 by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young.


  • beejeez on June 09, 2011 11:28 AM:

    I'm with ya, Mr. Cain. Let's start with my proposed text for the Health Care Act of 2011:

    Part I:

    Everybody gets Medicare.

    Part II:

    See Part I.

    The End.

  • toowearyforoutrage on June 09, 2011 12:42 PM:

    ó itís often filled with technical and legal jargon, which is necessary for it to be implemented as intended.

    I'm unsure about this part.

    Doctors can call heart attacks "myocardial infarctions" but it'll confuse the patient.

    Lawyers use Latin. Same idea. If the patient is confused, they may be under the impression that the subject matter is more complex than it is.

    It discourages inquiry. Most professionals are happy not to be answering laymen's questions and only those who ask for clarification get anywhere.

    I fix computers. I don't use jargon, but I could. It's rude. Congressmen aren't as self-secure as tech pros, perhaps.

    Scientific researchers canít publish a study on life-saving medication in three-pages or less. Actually, they do. It's called the abstract. Political action organizations perform this service, but Fox "News" doesn't provide this service.