TE: Legislative Verbosity
Legislative Verbosity: Outrageous Bills
Why Congress writes such long laws.
The long list of reasons why Congress has failed to reform immigration has just expanded. John Boehner, the House Speaker, explained on November 13th that he would not bring the Senate’s immigration proposal to a vote because it was “a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read”. Mr Boehner has other reasons to avoid a vote: Republicans are happy to keep talking about Obamacare and in no rush to increase the number of Hispanic voters, 71% of whom chose Barack Obama in 2012. Yet for all that, Mr Boehner is right.
In 1948 the average length of bills that made it through Congress was two and a half pages. Now it is 20. That may not sound too much, but the mean is brought down by short, uncontroversial laws like the two-page bill passed in June to rename an air traffic control building in New Hampshire after a long-serving employee.
Verbosity is bipartisan: the No Child Left Behind bill of 2001 ran to over 1,000 pages (its sponsor was a Mr Boehner). Greater length is partly a consequence of the increases in computing power that have made it easier for people to produce interminable documents. But it is mainly a result of gridlock in Congress.
Paradoxically, this reflects the success of campaigns for cleaner government. The number of earmarks—defined as funding for pet projects introduced by congressmen and senators to benefit their districts or states—has dropped by 98% since Congress agreed to a moratorium in 2010. Citizens Against Government Waste, a group which used to bring live pigs to the launch of its annual catalogue of pork-barrel spending, no longer bothers.
Earmarks were an effective way to persuade congressmen to vote for laws they disliked. Now they are gone, lawmakers tend to vote as their conscience dictates; and it usually tells them to block whatever the other party is doing. Mr Boehner has helped to clog up the system by allowing votes only on bills that a majority of House Republicans support.
As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku.
The Senate’s immigration bill covers a complex subject that would be hard to compress too much. But it probably does not need sections on global health-care co-operation, on the protection of family values in programmes to apprehend illegal migrants, or on the treatment of Filipino veterans of the second world war—however worthwhile those things may be.
If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.