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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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