Is the reform bill too long?

IS THE REFORM BILL TOO LONG?…. The right has come up with plenty of criticisms of health care reform proposals, some more substantive than others. One of the weaker complaints: the legislation is long, and conservatives don’t want to read the whole thing.

This is a surprisingly common complaint. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for example, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard alum, said last week, “I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills.” A wide variety of his cohorts have raised the same concern.

The usual retort is that bill length is irrelevant to bill quality. The “Harry Potter” books are apparently pretty long, and those who say, “I have a fundamental problem with any 700-page books” come across as kind of silly.

That said, is there anything to these complaints? Is the reform bill unusually long? Not really. Christopher Beam had a good piece on this the other day.

[M]ajor spending bills frequently run more than 1,000. This year’s stimulus bill was 1,100 pages. The climate bill that the House passed in June was 1,200 pages. Bill Clinton’s 1993 health care plan was famously 1,342 pages long. Budget bills can run even longer: In 2007, President Bush’s ran to 1,482 pages.

Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)

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.

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. As one of Matt’s readers noted yesterday, “Nobody ever mentions that bills have very few words on each page. They’re double spaced, there are huge margins, every line is numbered — it ends up working out to only 150 words a page or so. The HC bill may be long, but it’s the equivalent of a 300 or 400-page book, tops.”

I suppose there’s a reasonable case to be made that shorter bills might be more accessible to the general public, and the typical American won’t bother with a 1,000-page bill. Perhaps. But 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.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone starts whining about the size of the reform bill. There are legitimate concerns about the legislation. This isn’t one of them.