Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Short Bills = Bureaucratic Governance

Steve Benen has a long rant against the Tea Party complaints about long bills, which resurfaced today thanks to Herman Cain -- who got all carried away and said he wouldn't sign any bill longer than three pages (I also wrote about it in terms of nomination politics over at Greg's place today).

Just one point about Benen's rant, which regular readers will know I certainly agree with. He writes that "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." Technically, I don't think that's true. If Congress wanted to leave almost everything to the president and to bureaucrats, they could pass relatively short, extremely vague laws giving a broad policy direction, and then give executive branch agencies and departments the responsibility of deciding how to turn that direction into actual policies.

Indeed, of course, plenty of that happens even with very long bills. But more is possible. It's just not possible while keeping Congress a co-equal branch of government.

Since Congress-bashing is always popular (and I suspect that's at least a large part of why the "read the bill" and "short bills" stuff is a big hit with focus groups and audiences, which is therefore why we keep hearing it), there's actually some rough sort of justice in it: people irrationally don't like Congress, and so politicians say foolish anti-Congress stuff. But for those of us who believe an autonomous, transformative Congress is one of the things that makes the United States unusually democratic, it's sad stuff.


  1. Not that this is what the tea partiers are thinking, but there is some benefit to allowing bureaucracies greater flexibility in policymaking. As Jonathan points out, lawmakers give up power in doing this, so there is a real tradeoff. But short of demanding that everything fit on the back of a cocktail napkin, a reasonable case can be made for brevity in laws. Of course, my libertarian policy preference is generally for no laws, and I wouldn’t mind seeing thousands of Federal criminal statutes get repealed altogether.

  2. I agree with you, we will continue to need long bills.

    I'm less sure about tax bills in particular, where the correlation of length and loopholes seems high. What would you think of a standing rule that any bill must maintain or decrease the total size of the tax code?


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