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What's 1,000 Pages Got to Do With It?

August 26, 2009 - by Paul Blumenthal

Over the summer quite a number of people have raised hackles about the length of legislation, particularly the House health care bill (H.R. 3200). Recently, Sen. David Vitter declared his “fundamental” opposition to “any 1,000 page bill.” While this appears to be a new found opposition — Vitter voted in favor of the 1,000 page Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 — the trend of lengthy legislation is not new.

Chris Beam at Slate looked at the outrage over the Proustian length of bills and exposed the real reasons why legislation has requires multiple loads of paper to print.

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. Another factor is that the federal government keeps expanding. Federal spending was about $2.7 trillion in 2007. That’s up from $92 billion 50 years ago. And as new legislation is introduced, past laws need to be updated. The result: more pages.

In the case of the health care bill there is so much past legislation to cover — Medicare, Medicaid, insurance regulations — and the industry is so large (1/5 of the economy) that a shorter bill might be more confusing. This type of major reform bill is also so rare that it is not nearly the most offensive in terms of length.

The biggest problem that Congress faces with super-sized bills comes from the appropriations process. Too often partisan warfare leads to a pile-up of appropriations bills at the end of Congress. These are often mashed together into a massive omnibus bill with tons of hidden goodies slipped in. This problem goes back to the 1980s and has been a regular feature of the legislative process since the 1990s.

The 1,000 page bill phenomenon is likely here to stay during this era of Congress. For those concerned with this, focusing on the worst distortions, omnibus appropriations bills, is likely the only area where a reduction in bill length can be achieved. Those who want to read the bills should find the permalinked sections of every bill here at Open Congress very useful for research and easy commenting.

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