Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Bills are Long: A Response to Herman Cain

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain recently remarked that he would not sign a bill over 3 pages long. He later said that the comment was hyperbolic, but would prefer simple, short bills, "that the American public can read and understand," over long, complicated bills. This position is, understandably, attractive to many voters. It reflects the mistrust that many have of Congress. Also, stories of earmarks and tax breaks that are “slipped” into bills are common. Short and simple bills, therefore, are seen as a solution to a crooked Congress.

Additionally, in a political campaign, candidates often attempt to find simple solutions to our nations complicated problems because they are easier to communicate to voters, and easier for voters to understand. This may also be the source of Cain's pledge to not sign a bill over 3 pages. Tim Pawlenty's  “Google test” would be another example.

I can imagine scenarios where making a bill shorter would improve it. I am a long time advocate of a simpler tax code, for instance. Making bills shorter does not, however, improve them by default. In most cases it would make them worse—much worse. Here is why.

The implementation of legislation is the responsibility of government bureaucrats. Bureaucracies take laws written by Congress and put them into action. Sometimes this endeavor can be straightforward. Other times, however, there can be much gray area between the intent of Congress, as stated in a law, and its implementation by a bureaucrat. Congress cannot write a bill that accounts for every possible situation that the bill will encounter. The details of implementation, therefore, are left to the bureaucrats who are responsible for the implementation of a law.

Now, imagine you are a member of Congress. You know that you may have little control over the implementation of a bill after you have voted on it. How, then, are you going to do all that you can to make sure the law is implemented how you would like for it to be implemented? The answer, of course, is to provide lots of detail and use precise language. In other words, write a long, complicated bill.

When you see, therefore, legislation that is long, complicated and uses a bunch of legalese gobbledy-gook, you are seeing the results of congress members trying to have as much control as possible over the direction of that legislation. The next question you should ask is, who do you want to have the most control over the direction of that legislation? Unelected bureaucrats, or the members of Congress who can be held accountable by voters every election?