My, What a Long Bill You Have!

Some people imagine that talking points are distributed by some Central Office of Liberalism or Conservative Headquarters, put out each day with instructions for what to say and how to say it. That's not really how it works; sure, there are organizations that email around suggestions on arguments people ought to make, but for the most part, talking points are more viral, spreading from person to person when they find an amenable host. Sometimes a talking point spreads because it is vivid and persuasive, while at other times, it spreads despite being completely ridiculous.

So it is with an old chestnut we've heard before on issues like health care, and we're now hearing on immigration reform. The talking point says that a bill currently being debated contains many pages, and therefore must be a bad thing for America.

This is almost always offered by Republicans, in part because they generally think government should refrain from tackling complex problems that might require complex legislation to address, but also, I'm suspecting, because they've just gotten used to saying it, and for some reason Tea Party people seem really into complaining about how long bills are. So here's Utah senator Mike Lee on Fox News Sunday yesterday, explaining that of all the things wrong with immigration reform, "worst of all" is "that they are going to replace the 'gang of eight's' bill, about a thousand pages, with a 1,200-page Corker-Hoeven Amendment." And here's Republican congressman Mike Kelly on This Week, complaining, "Any time you rush anything through that big—this was up to 1,100 pages—I doubt that anybody's really read it." And here's Sen. Jeff Sessions on Face the Nation, worrying that immigration is "now a 1,200 page vote we'll have Monday afternoon that nobody has read." Bob Corker, co-sponsor of those 1,200 pages, was even moved to release a statement arguing that his 1,200 pages isn't really 1,200 pages.

I'm not saying I don't get the appeal of "The bill is really long!" Americans distrust the sausage-making of the legislative process, and with some justification. But if you're going to argue that bill length is an indicator of something problematic—like for instance, a long bill might contain giveaways to special interests—then it isn't the length per se that's the problem, and you should be obligated to find and identify those giveaways, if they actually exist. And if you say, "We're supposed to vote on this, and members don't even know what's in it!", then why don't you read it and tell us what's wrong with it.

Members of Congress don't read every page of every bill because the language of bills is filled with legalese and references from one subsection to another subsection and details that are often of only the barest relevance to whether they're going to vote for or against it. Do you think we ought to hire 20,000 new border patrol agents? Either you do or you don't, but there's also a bunch of detail in the bill on how they're going to be hired and where lines of authority will run and how money will be allocated and so on. Having that set out in the bill is necessary to implement the policy, but it probably won't change how each member of Congress feels about whether it's a good idea or not.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the bill-length argument is this: Bills in Congress are printed with huge margins and double-spaced, with lots of indentations to boot (I'm not sure why—maybe it's a relic of pre-computer days when changes would have to be written in by hand in between the lines). Here's one version of the immigration bill, and if you scroll through you can see there just isn't very much on each page. It isn't like the pages of a book or a magazine. So you can say "It's 1,200 pages long!", but that probably equates to about as many words as a book that's 3 or 400 pages long. Which is still pretty long, but not quite as dramatic. And even if it was a legit 1,200 pages, knowing that would tell us nothing about whether it ought to pass.

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