Please, Enough With the Length of Bill.

A few months back, I wrote a column titled "The Ten Dumbest Arguments Against Health Care Reform." But now I feel bad, because I missed the single dumbest argument, which those opposed to reform seem to have put at the center of their case against it. And here it is: The bill is really long!

We’ve had to endure one Republican after another decrying the length of the bill, holding up big printed copies of the bill, demanding that people read the whole bill out loud … enough already. You made your point. It’s really long.

What none of them has explained is why this is, irrespective of what is actually in the bill, a bad thing. When they were running Congress, Republicans wrote long bills too (the White House pointed out that the Medicare prescription drug plan passed by Republicans and signed by George W. Bush was a none-too-svelte 1,044 pages). Those bills weren’t bad because they were long, they were bad because of what they did.

Whether a bill is good or bad depends on what it actually does, not how long it is. Republicans would probably argue that the big-government-ness of the bill is expressed in its length, but that’s just silly. You can have a far-reaching bill that dramatically expands the scope of government power but does so in a few words, just as you can have a bill that goes into great detail about many narrow provisions that don’t affect very many people.

Bills can be long for many reasons – there’s a lot of legalese, a lot of "whereas" passages explaining why the bill exists in the first place, not to mention that because of the way bills are printed – double-spaced and with big margins – there aren’t very many words on each page. And a complex bill might also spend substantial amounts of time explaining what it doesn’t do, of the "Nothing in this legislation may be interpreted to mandate tonsillectomies for any member of Washoe County Boys Scout Troop #23…" variety.

You might think that opponents, who can’t stand much of anything about health care reform, would want the bill to be as detailed and specific as possible about what it does and doesn’t do. But I guess not. Now we’ll be treated to a lengthy "debate" in the Senate about the merits of health care reform. I'm guessing that nearly every Republican who gets up to talk will scornfully mention the length of the bill. And you wonder why Americans think Congress is a bunch of buffoons.

-- Paul Waldman

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