The GOP’s preoccupation with bill lengths

About two years ago, Republicans decided one of the biggest problems with the Democrats’ health care reform proposal was the number of pages in the legislation. Even now, it’s still a common complaint — the law must be flawed, the right argues, because it was long.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain picked up on this theme while campaigning in Iowa this week.

“Don’t try to pass a 2,700 page bill — and even they didn’t read it! You and I didn’t have time to read it. We’re too busy trying to live — send our kids to school. That’s why I am only going to allow small bills — three pages. You’ll have time to read that one over the dinner table.”

This is deeply odd. It’s true that most of the public is pretty busy and Americans generally don’t have time to read legislation. It’s why we have a representative democracy — we can’t evaluate every proposed measure, so we “hire” (i.e., elect) professional lawmakers (i.e., members of Congress) to do it for us.

And sometimes, when these professional lawmakers and their staffs address national needs, their proposals get pretty long. That’s to be expected. We live in an advanced 21st-century superpower, and legislation often deals with complex issues. 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.

There is, I’m afraid, no way to squeeze legislative text into a CliffsNotes-style bill for those who tire of reading after a few pages.

I guess that’s what irks me most about this incessant preoccupation with bill length — it reeks of anti-intellectualism. The Republicans who complain the loudest aren’t even trying to hide their disdain for depth and detail. “Just dumb it down for us,” they seem to be saying. “We can’t be bothered to, you know, read and stuff.”

But sometimes, powerful people working on important measures need to care enough about substance to write detailed proposals. Car makers can’t put together a blueprint for a new model in three pages or less. Scientific researchers can’t publish a study on life-saving medication in three-pages or less. It doesn’t mean the cars and/or medicine lack value, just because the typical American couldn’t read the descriptions at the dinner table.

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. There are huge margins, a large font, and everything is double-spaced. Legislation may look enormous, but be fairly manageable. (This blog post would take up more than one legislative page, for example.)

If we rely on word counts as a more accurate measurement of length, the Affordable Care Act was about as long as Sarah Palin’s first book — and “Going Rogue” wasn’t exactly an endless tome. And yet, the ACA has somehow become the Republican standard for “Too Big To Read.”

So perhaps the right can pick something new to whine about? Meaningful legislation generally requires lots of pages. There’s nothing wrong with this.