Big bills and aggressive Congressional schedules makes for bad government

Posted on May 17, 2007


I was casting about the airwaves Wednesday night for something worth listening to when I stumbled upon Fresh Air. Terry Gross was interviewing Boston Globe legal columnist and Pulitzer winner Charlie Savage about Regent University Law School (the Christian university founded by Pat Robertson). While I came into the middle of the interview, so many things I heard concerned me. For example, did you know that many of the key players in the U.S. attorney firing scandal were from Regent University Law School? Including Monica Goodling. That fact alone is probably worth several blogs from my fellow scholars/rogues.

What I’m going to focus on is a little peice of legislation that was slipped into the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. Specifically, Congress voted to give the Justice Department the authority to replace U.S. attorneys without the usual Congressional review, ie Senate confirmation hearings. Since this fact has come out publically, according to Mr. Savage, no Congressperson has acknowledged that they knew about this part of the PATRIOT Act when they voted for the reauthorization and both houses of Congress have overwhelmingly (ie veto-proof majorities) voted for repeal of this little bit of the Act.

What bothers me is not so much that Congress might have voted to do something stupid like this. No, what bothers me is that the language was inserted into the reauthorization bill by a Congressional staffer on the request of the Justice Department, and that no-one who voted for the reauthorization apparently knew that it had been added.

The average length of bills has been growing steadily over the years. Between the 1947-48 and 1995-96 Congressional sessions, the average length of legislation increased from 2.5 pages to 19.1 pages. It’s probably reasonable to suggest that the average length has grown since 1996 as well, especially with our Congress’ apparent love of omnibus bills (for some of my thoughts on omnibus bills, see here and here). If we use a linear extrapolation fro 1996 to 2006, we’re at approximately .35 pages per year, or 22.6 pages per bill in the 2005-2006 session. (NOTE: I searched all over the web for good data instead of using extrapolated data, but couldn’t find any. If somone has better data, I’d love to update this post with the corrected data.)

At the same time, the pace of legislation has stayed more or less constant (measured by the number of bills introduced). In the 80th Congress (1947-48), 12,090 bills were introduced, of which 4,152 were passed. In the 108th Congress (2005-06), 10,670 bills were introduced of which 2,674 were passed. (source: Resume of Congressional Activity) If we assume that all passed bills were read, that’s 10,380 pages for the 80th Congress and 60,432 pages (estimated) for the 108th Congress. Do we really belive that, with all the travel, debating, press conferences, hearings, etc. that Congresspersons do, they have time to read 60,432 pages over their 2189 hours they were in session? That’s an average of 27.6 pages of legislation read per session hour.

And if we up the number of bills to the number actually introduced (and that’s probably a more accurate number), then we’re looking at a whopping 241,142 pages, or 110 pages every session hour.

Now, I realize that this is a big part of what Congressional staffers are for. So lets add the staffers into the mix, but let’s also use the number of bills introduced. And, since Representatives usually have fewer staffers, let’s look just at the House of Representatives. The average number of staffers per House member is 17, of which not all are going to be expected or able to read and comment on legislation. So let’s assume (generously) that 12 are able to do legislative reading and summaries for their boss. This means that there are 13 people reading every piece of introduced legislation, for 8.5 pages of legislation per person per session hour. Again, I ask, do we really believe that Congresspersons and their staffs combined have the ability to read every word of every piece of legislation? Especially when you consider that these numbers are averages, and that legislation doens’t flow through Congress at an even rate of 120 pages of legislation per session hour.

Since it’s unreasonable to expect that Congress actually reads every word of every bill that is introduced (and it’s highly unlikely that every Representative and Senator reads every word of every bill that passes), and since we know that bits of legislation have slipped through Congressional oversight, what’s the solution?

First off, I think we should force Congress to clean up their collective act on omnibus bills. Force every bill to be single topic. This will dramatically cut down on the length of bills and will require every bill that is put before Congress to addressed on its merits. No more attaching ANWR drilling provisions to defense appropriations or sneaking Congressional pay raises into health care bills. As a side benefit, Presidents calling for line-item vetos would probably become a thing of the past.

Secondly, I think we should require that no legislation is taken up before the whole House or Senate without every member present having at least read the legislation themselves. Since every bill would be single-topic, they’d all be a lot smaller and easier to read, and they’d also be quicker, on average, to debate. Similarly, all bills that come out of conference comittee must be re-read by all members of both the House and Senate before they’re voted on. We’ve seen too many examples recently of provisions being added in closed conference comittees that were in neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bills but that the House or Senate leadership wanted and couldn’t get any other way.

And thirdly, I think we should require that staffers not be allowed to slip bits of new legislation into bills without their Representative or Senator boss knowing about it. If a Congressperson wants to have help from a staffer, that’s fine, but if that staffer adds something, the Congressperson must personally sign off on the addition. This way we have accountability for BS like stripping the Senate of it’s authority to hold confirmation hearings for U.S. attorneys.

There are groups out there working to force Congress to read every word of every bill they pass. One is, and they have a Read the Laws Act that has already been circulated throughout Congress. It basically calls for every Representative and Senator to read every word of every bill that is voted on. Another is the Council on Foreign Relations, who have put out a study saying, among other things, that the length of bills and the pace of legislation are both part of the problem in international relations

[Crosspost: The Daedalnexus, The 5th Estate]

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