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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How does a lawyer hide the bad stuff?

In a mountain of paperwork.

As near as I can tell, over the last few years Congress has churned out roughly the same number of laws each session. (Each Congressional session is a 2 year period). We are actually looking at that trending down this session.image

But the total words signed into law each year has steadily increased.


This is extremely disturbing. As we have had cries of “Did you read the bill?” recently, it becomes more and more difficult for them to read *any* of it because of the sheer volume. The average number of words per bill in the bills that have passed have steadily increased.

The trend has to build fewer but larger bills. Just look at the number of MASSIVE bills that have been passed over the past few years. The recent health care act being the largest so far at around 370,000 words.


Passing large bills has a number of effects.

  1. It makes reading, understanding and debating them in their entirety impossible. Yes, I said impossible. No single person can pull all this together in their head and understand the complete implementation or ramifications of any of these bills.
  2. It makes it very easy to slip things in that are difficult or otherwise impossible to pass on their own. This subsequently causes misuse of the rules processes to create unusual situations in order for the bill to get passed.
  3. It causes an all or nothing approach to legislation which traditionally would have passed in pieces. It further encourages the us vs them mentality because no one can be for part A and against part B with their single vote.
  4. It completely distorts the public’s view of their representatives’ votes. The record only reflects the final vote on the whole. Many of these votes are only made because of certain tweaks or they are made under threat of censure from the larger party system or are “allowed” by the larger party system because the individual vote is not needed for passage. All of this makes reviewing the record of the congressman worthless
  5. In the end it becomes so difficult that the law makers will either start asking for broader and broader powers just so they don’t have to go through the process because its become too cumbersome or they will just start rubberstamping everything.

We all know from our Law & Order School of Courtroom Tactics that when someone sends you a mountain of paperwork there is something very important buried in it that they don’t want you to see.

Now imagine all the stuff they also have to read that doesn’t even get turned into law!

I’d love to see a rule limiting the size of any one bill but as we saw with pay-go legislation, they would just pass another rule allowing them to ignore the size whenever it was convenient.

On methodology

All my data is culled from where I simply pulled the list of all the bills that were listed as “enacted” and then pulled the text for each bill and did a word count on them. Of course counting words is a tricky thing and I’m sure anyone replicating my work will find different absolute numbers depending on what counts as a “word” but the important idea is that a consistent method looking over time should produce the same trends.

Also note that while some of the graphs look like they are trending down in the current session, we are only 3/4 done with it so the data needs to be extrapolated upwards by ~25%.

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