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For Bills in Congress, How Long is Long?

November 24, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

As soon as Senate Democrats released their health care reform bill, Republicans began calling it out on its length. It’s “longer than Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch [R, UT] last week at a press conference set up by Senate Republicans to slam the bill.

The size of the bills has become a common talking point for opponents of health care reform. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly referenced the number of pages in the Democrats’ health care bills to try to link them to big government and excessive spending. They’ve even staged antics, like the one pictured at right of Rep. Pete Hoekstra [R, MI-2] and the House bill spread along the Capitol steps.

The AP reported recently that, counter to Senator Hatch’s claims, the Senate health care bill is not actually longer than War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel is about twice as long as the bill. But on his broader point that the bill is extremely long, Hatch is right.

OpenCongress Research Assistant Andrew Rabinowitz downloaded bulk data and analyzed legislation from the last five sessions of Congress to determine “how long is long?” for congressional legislation and how the current health care bills compare to other long bills. Because differences in styling and formatting make page numbers an unreliable metric, he used word counts to compare the bills.

Andrew found that the Democrats’ health care bills in the Senate and the House are, comparatively, very long. In fact, at 314,900 words, the House version is the longest bill to move through Congress since at least 1999. It is more than one hundred times longer than the average bill in Congress over the last five sessions (3,105 words is the average length). For perspective, a good typist could write up the House health care bill in a little less than 65 hours at 80 WPM. If you were willing to sacrifice some comprehension you could probably skim the bill in about 8½ hours at 600 WPM.

But long bills are written by both Democrats and Republicans. The second longest bill to appear in Congress over the past ten years was authored by Republican Rep. Don Young [R, AK-1]. It’s a mere 68 words shorter than the House health care bill. Of the 10 longest bills in the past ten years, five were written by Democrats and five were written by Republicans.

Below is a list of the ten longest bills in Congress, by word count, over the last ten years:

Word Count Bill Sponsor Status
314,900 Affordable Health Care for American Act Rep. John Dingell [D, MI-15] Approved by House
314,832 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, 2005 Rep. Don Young [R, AK-1] Bill is Law
314,573 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] Submitted in Senate
296,111 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005 Rep. James Kolbe [R, AZ-5] Bill is Law
276,849 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 Rep. Nita Lowey [D, NY-18] Bill is Law
274,559 No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 Rep. John Boehner [R, OH-8] Bill is Law
258,205 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 Rep. Ike Skelton [D, MO-4] Bill is Law
250,286 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 Rep. Collin Peterson [D, MN-7] Bill is Law
246,984 Consolidated Appropriations Resolution, 2003 Rep. Bill Young [R, FL-10] Bill is Law
226,492 Energy Policy Act, 2005 Rep. Joe Barton [R, TX-6] Bill is Law

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  • freescv 11/25/2009 4:38am
    Link Reply
    + -1

    Seems the laws need to be broken down to be effective and not sneaking in bs no one wants.

    Also, love to see votes from citizens (and visitors/foreigners in a separate category) alongside their “elected” politicians. :)

    voting every 5 years is fine but the people need a vote every day, like checking email, for EACH bill/proposed law. then those who care enough about it vote, and we got stats to compare vs elected votes. that’s valuable info to utilize.

    great website tho. it’s a real good start for an open source government, 100% transparent and accountable to the people. i mean, america already got it’s double innoculation for president problems in the past 2 terms eh? ;)

    anyways votes every day. every 5 years (or not at all like our current system/problem just ain’t good enough, like linux code in computer land, those who care SHOULD be able to review the proposals and call out the bs before ANY official vote goes into effect, posting it online for everyone is the only things fair

  • Comm_reply
    dsauter 11/30/2009 10:03am

    Allowing everyone to vote on every law? Sure if you want to throw Jeffersonian ideals out the window for mob rule. There’s a reason the federal level is a Republic and not a Democracy – Tyranny of the majority.

    Now on the other hand I fully agree that there should be sunlight clauses put into place and every bill in final form should be posted for all to review for a minimum of a week before the final vote. I’d prefer a month.

    Likewise all amendments (and earmarks) should have who wanted them. That would slow the earmark for votes process rather quickly.

    On top of that I’d love a 20K word limit on all laws (including amendments). That would make these far more readable and limit the amount of things that can be hidden in them.

  • LucasFoxx 11/25/2009 5:30pm

    Thanks for that. I’m the kind of geek that was interested in that question. I don’t remember anyone complaining about the length of the No Child Left Behind bill; only the content. It makes one consider the effect of basic word processing on legislation. If they were still stuck with pen and parchment, one would assume writing law would still be much less complicated. But then, our lives would be much less complicated as well.

  • spender 11/25/2009 7:48pm

    I like how, for all but the two health care bills currently in contention, each of those longest-bills-of-the-past-ten-years are now laws. Given the makeup of Congress since 1999, I’m guessing at least a few Republicans ended up voting for them.

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