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Just Because A Bill Is Long Doesn't Mean It's Bad

Printing out the new House Republican health care bill (left) kills way fewer trees than printing out Obamacare (right). But should that really be a selling point?
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Printing out the new House Republican health care bill (left) kills way fewer trees than printing out Obamacare (right). But should that really be a selling point?

To President Trump, bigger is better.

He has inflated the size of his buildings (counting stories that aren't there). He exaggerated the size of the crowd at his inauguration (a million and a half — it wasn't). And he, of course, famously lashed out when he was accused of having small hands. (If that implied something else must be small, he said during a nationally televised debate, "There's no problem. I guarantee you.")

But when it comes to the health care bill, the Trump administration believes smaller is better.

When House Republicans released their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, press secretary Sean Spicer brought props to his daily briefing — a table next to his lectern with the 123-page GOP bill, sitting next to a 974-page Affordable Care Act.

"As you'll see, this bill right here was the bill that was introduced in 2009 and 10 by the previous administration," Spicer said Wednesday. "Notice how thick that is."

He later went on to elaborate that the GOP replacement plan is even smaller than it looks.

"So far, we're at 57 for the repeal plan and 66 pages for the replacement portion," Spicer said. "We'll undo this. And remember, half of it, 57 of those pages, are the repeal part. So when you really get down to it, our plan is 66 pages long, half of what we actually even have there."

This tactic isn't new to the Trump administration; making page counts into a talking point has been a fixture of policy debates since at least the Reagan administration, particularly among conservatives. But a bill's length has very, very little to do with its quality. And experts say that keeping major legislation short is getting tougher.

Why all the hate for long bills?

Politicians have criticized long bills for decades, and that history shows a few reasons why people feel (or say they feel) that those bills are a problem.

For one, critics believe these lengthy bills are signs of legislative inefficiency. President Reagan in his 1988 State of the Union address gave a particularly memorable example of it.

"The budget process has broken down; it needs a drastic overhaul," he declared, shaming Congress for late and "monstrous" budget resolutions. And like Spicer this week, Reagan made his point with his own table piled high with paper (the relevant portion begins around 15:50 in the below video):

"Along came these behemoths. This is the conference report — 1,053 pages, report weighing 14 pounds. Then this — a reconciliation bill six months late that was 1,186 pages long, weighing 15 pounds. And the long-term continuing resolution — this one was two months late, and it's 1,057 pages long, weighing 14 pounds. Now, that was a total of 43 pounds of paper and ink. You had three hours — yes, three hours — to consider each, and it took 300 people at my Office of Management and Budget just to read the bill so the government wouldn't shut down. Congress shouldn't send another one of these. No, and if you do, I will not sign it."

Reagan held up each of three different, massive budget bills, to laughter and applause from congressional members. He underlined his point by dropping each stack of papers with a theatrical thump. (He added a final flourish of shaking out his hand, as if he had injured it.)

A bill's length has also been taken as a sign that bills were simply unworkably byzantine. The Atlantic's James Fallows in 1995 cited the 1,342 pages of Hillary Clinton's health care overhaul as evidence that the bill was "fatally overcomplicated" and "impossible for anyone except the plan's creators ... to understand."

Yet another dimension to the fear of long legislation is the fear that it will contain buried, objectionable provisions that lawmakers won't find until it's too late.

After the George W. Bush White House passed its prescription-drug plan, for example, one Republican lawmaker told 60 Minutes that members of Congress weren't given enough time to understand the legislation.

"The bill was over 1,000 pages," North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones said. "And it got to the members of the House that morning, and we voted for it at about 3 a.m. in the morning."

This is a regular concern, said one former Hill staffer.

"What got snuck into there? What got airdropped into there in conference or whatever?" said Billy Pitts, a longtime GOP congressional aide, explaining a common reaction to long bills. "That's always the threat of a big, fat bill — there's always something hidden inside of it."

That notion was hammered home for conservatives with Nancy Pelosi's infamous 2010 remark to the Legislative Conference for the National Association of Counties, that "we have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what's in it."

She has since said that that quote was taken out of context, but Republicans seized upon it as evidence of shady lawmaking. Right-leaning website the Daily Signal characterized its view of Pelosi's message as follows:

"What lurks within the House and Senate health care bills will be revealed in the fullness of time, and it's really good for us if we only knew better."

And finally, there is the symbolic argument — perhaps the most common type of argument against long bills. It makes an intuitive sense that Republicans often lambast legislation for being lengthy.

"For conservatives, [long legislation] becomes a metaphor for complicated government," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "You throw down 1,000 pages or 1,500 pages, and it looks like they're doing stuff that gets into every detail of everybody's lives."

Here's how bills get so long (and are getting longer all the time)

A thousand pages might sound insane to people who don't read legislation on a daily basis. But there are substantive reasons why bills can become so large.

The following three reasons explain why worries about lengthy bills are often overblown:

1. Making laws is harder than it looks

Interestingly, Spicer hinted at one of these reasons in his comments this week, when he said that repealing Obamacare itself took 57 pages. That's a lot of pages for doing something that can be explained in two words: "repeal Obamacare."

So while it might seem repealing a law would be simple — say, writing a bill that says something along the lines of, "This bill will fully repeal the Affordable Care Act" — it often instead requires making many, many changes to many, many different parts of different, specific and carefully crafted laws.

"The fact is even most aficionados could not read most bills and get anything out of them," Ornstein said of the desire to cut length, "which is why we have this army of people in the legislative branch, the Legislative Counsel's Office, to take policies and translate it into the gibberish."

2. Polarization means bills crammed full of things

Another reason why laws can get so long is that polarization has created gridlock that makes passing laws remarkably hard, said Sarah Binder, professor of political science at Georgetown University.

"Laws are long — and probably longer today than in the past," she said in an email to NPR, "because the difficulty of legislating pushes lawmakers to craft new laws with big, multidimensional deals: Your team gets X; my team gets Y; we sew them up into one huge bill."

She added, "When you come up against a deadline, everything is multiple trains are leaving the station, and you put them all on the same track. And that's how you make deals."

To illustrate, she points to the fact that the number of bills passed keeps dropping — but the length of those bills keeps rising.

In other words, less legislation (by number of bills) is getting passed, but each bill that's passed has way more legislation in it (by number of pages).

This means that the fear of surprise policies being shoehorned into a large bill makes some sense. But as Binder points out, cramming things into bills is also often the only option for passing legislation these days.

3. Some policy areas are just super complicated

Pitts emphasized to NPR the benefits of simple legislation: It's easier to understand, and it's easier to foresee its effects and how it will interact with existing laws.

However, it's also true that some legislation simply deals in complicated policy areas that can't be boiled down to a few dozen pages.

"What you have to keep in mind here in something like this area is you're talking about policy that affects close to one-fifth of the economy," Ornstein said. "And it gets into tax law; it gets into Medicare and Medicaid, which have grown greatly in complexity; it gets into divisions between the states and the federal government."

A similar principle applies to the tax code — another area where the more-pages-is-bad argument is often made, as Ed Kleinbard, professor of law and business at the University of Southern California, told NPR last year.

"The tax code is thousands of pages long for a very simple reason: It is a model, in the economic sense, of all of economic activity," he said. "Most Americans don't spend a lot of time worrying about the taxation of cutting timber or of being crew on a tuna boat. But there are rules for that, and you may find the rules irrelevant to you, but the rules are complex for a reason."

So putting too much stock in the length of the bill often makes little sense. This may be something repeal proponents will want to keep in mind in the coming weeks, because this bill is just the first part of a three-part plan.

"One of the reasons that this bill is shorter at this point," Ornstein points out, "is they're taking on only parts of the Affordable Care Act and making changes.

"If they manage to do all these things, and you look at the nature of the regulations and then you do a third bill, it's probably going to be about as long as the Affordable Care Act."

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.