Even Better Than “Read The Bill”

Frequent commenter Carl Pham has a novel and spectacular proposal, that doesn’t stand a chance in hell of being passed:

We need a Paygo Principle when it comes to Federal law. Namely, the total word count of all Federal law is forbidden — let us say by Constitutional Amendment — from increasing. Hence if Congress wants to write new law, they must first repeal or simplify enough existing law so that the total word count will remain unchanged.

And if we really want to encourage healthy competition between the political parties, like we have in the private sector, where firms compete for efficiency in providing a product or service, we can modify this slightly, like so:

(1) Each political party has their own “word credit” which they accumulate by repealing or simplifying law when they are in the majority. Credit does not pass between parties, so, e.g. if the Republicans when they take over in November repeal 50,000 words of law and then get replaced in 2012, the Democrats do not get to take advantage of the Republiicans’ 50,000 word credit. They have to earn their own.

(2) However, any credit remaining at the time you lose power carries over to the next time you gain power. So if the Republicans accumulated credit before being replaced in 2012, they could, when they return to power, immediatley start using that credit.

What I like about (2) is that it instantly reverses the motivations during a lame-duck session, or when you know you’re about to go down in flames. Rather than pass a bunch of law at the last-minute, flouting popular opinion, because you’ve got nothing to lose, you’d be motivated to repeal a bunch of law at the last minute, so as to guarantee yourself a credit when you return to power.

Naturally the other side isn’t going to help you, so you’re going to need to focus on repealing the least popular and most useless aspects of the law favored by your own party — which is very likely to align you better with the public’s wishes. You’ll tend to leave untouched the more popular stuff, and the bipartisan stuff, because you know this is most resistant to being repealed by the other side when they take over — and that helps you minimize how much credit they can accumulate right away.

Actually, I’d like to see the federal code reduced by an order of magnitude, so that could be incorporated into the plan as well. That is, in order to add new words, you’d have to take out ten existing ones for each one added. You could put some kind of floor on it to prevent it from disappearing altogether.

Of course, in order to do so, you’d be formalizing the existence of political parties in the Constitution, which doesn’t mention them at all.

24 thoughts on “Even Better Than “Read The Bill””

  1. Carl rocks!

    Of course, if this had a hope in heck of passing, it’s likely that we wouldn’t need it. Right now I’d settle for an amendment coupling GDP to the Federal budget.

  2. Instead of formalizing parties, just make it so that members must bequeath any accumulated credit to a colleague of their choice when they leave office. That way, no need for a mention of parties. The concept of colleagues in their respective branch of congress is quite well-established.

  3. Were this to ever become law the acronyms, to save word count, that congress would come up with would make the DOD look like amateurs.

  4. Do you *want* a cryptic maze of spaghetti code in place of a clear and lucid body of law? They already write deranged patch-lists in place of proper, coherent legislation. If you force them down this road, it’s going to be as unreadable as assembly code, as intricate as forty-five year old Cobol tangles.

    Of course, i could be wrong. Maybe they’ll form a new committee of repeal, tasked with the identification of ancient legislative kruft, to be removed in each new bill. But given how competent the average legislative aide seems to be, more likely they’ll end up repeatedly trashing the heap. Like, for instance, removing some obscure chunk of eighty-year-old census instructions which turns out to have been used in an excessively silly fashion by some idiot while drafting the second-from-last revamp of the Social Security authorization, thus suddenly and unexpectedly causing the removal of, oh, I don’t know, retired waitresses and retired, formerly company-employed taxi drivers from the rolls.

  5. Mitch, you’re making the assumption that the current federal code is a clear and lucid body of law. That’s hardly the case as documented in this book:

    The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague. In Three Felonies a Day, Harvey A. Silverglate reveals how federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from the English common law tradition and how prosecutors can pin arguable federal crimes on any one of us, for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. The volume of federal crimes in recent decades has increased well beyond the statute books and into the morass of the Code of Federal Regulations, handing federal prosecutors an additional trove of vague and exceedingly complex and technical prohibitions to stick on their hapless targets. The dangers spelled out in Three Felonies a Day do not apply solely to “white collar criminals,” state and local politicians, and professionals. No social class or profession is safe from this troubling form of social control by the executive branch, and nothing less than the integrity of our constitutional democracy hangs in the balance.

  6. Nathan: Problem with that is… who gets the credit to do the bequeathing?

    Lawmaking is more collaborative than that, currently … and I’m not sure that is bad.

    I think that, ceteris paribus with what we have now, giving all that effective power (since this “credit” would be “the power to make new laws”) to the sole sponsor would possibly be even worse than what we have now for consolidating political power in individual hands in Congress.

    Rand: How about also having a cap on the number of words per bill (and forbidding acronyms except where they can be shown to be in common use outside of Congress already, or ENTIRELY)?

    I bet a party that ran on a platform including “we will reduce the size of the CFR and USC combined by ten percent during the next term” would get a lot of votes just for that.

    Especially if they also promised to completely ignore divisive social issues for one term.

  7. More:
    Single Subject rule: Any bill needs to adhere to the topic of the title, and any citizen has standing to sue on this point.

    “The Budget” will just lay out what percentage of revenue each -cabinet level department- will receive. (Directing the Department of the Interior to do XYZ or start a program is a separate bill.)

    Any bill that the executive branch fails to enforce is added to the “must consider” list like the budget is.

  8. I’d reshape Carl’s main point in a manner not requiring budgeting words or recognition of parties.

    The “Proper” size is ten one-thousand page tomes. (That is: something a competent human can fully grok.) Any year in which the existing body of law is larger than that, the last 5% will be simply cropped and Congress will go without pay. Unless they manage to crop -more- than that much prior to the end of the year. I’d even go for a bonus – one percent for each extra percent cropped.

  9. The general idea of placing a word budget on all legislation has been around a long time. It is a pity it has never been enacted.

    I actually doubt it would result in cryptic overly compressed spaghetti code as such code would likely be the first to be repealed to make way for more useful legislation.

    Cutting the number of congress members from 435 to ~100 might also greatly improve efficiency and improve/trim legislation. People are generally limited to knowing and working effectively with about 150 others, beyond that the group tends to become an amorphous mass of bureaucratic incompetence. Indeed some large businesses are structured on this basis.

  10. This is fantasy but I do like the principle. I use it when writing code. When I inherit somebody else’s code it usually gets cut in about half, is easier to read, has improved functions and is easier to modify in the future. The same might prove true with law.

  11. I’ve never understood how you can be held accountable to follow laws that you not only don’t know but have no possibility to know even if you spend every waking hour reading and learning the law.

  12. larry j: thus the point about them already writing horrible patch-lists in place of clear legal code.

    I just read Caro’s the Power Broker the other month, and one of the early peaks in Robert Moses’ monstrous career was his successful hiding of an evil little call-out in an inoffensive enabling bill creating the New York Parks Commission that let him seize land in a really uncontrolled fashion. His clever little bomb of a bill did this by making an uncommented definition of seizure via reference to an eighty-year-old bit of NY state statute on upstate logging. It was so fiendishly disguised that he was able to get the bill sponsored by the Long Island state representative of the very Gold Coast barons whom he was planning on screwing over with this newly-expanded power of eminent-domain-on-steroids. He did this in 1924.

    Something along the line of requiring entirely self-contained legislation without reference to existing statute, and replacing existing statute where applicable, seems safer as a buffer against the would-be Robert Moses in the wings.

  13. I prefer the “Sunset” provision, rather than an actual word count. Every law must sunset in a certain number of years (10 or so) from its date of passage. If Congress wishes to extend the life of the bill, they need to vote on it again. For older laws, already on the books, they would get an automatic life of the standard used above.

    That ought to keep these scavengers busy for the next fifty years or so!

  14. They’l just shift the important verbage into the executive regulations instead of in the legislation itself.

  15. Were this to ever become law the acronyms, to save word count, that congress would come up with would make the DOD look like amateurs.

    I move to add a provision that counts all of the words for which an acronym stands, so that — forexample — references to “the PATRIOT Act” would be worth nine words rather than three.

    More, if there are words whose initial letters are left out of the acronym, of course. Count every “and” and “the.”

  16. They’l just shift the important verbage into the executive regulations instead of in the legislation itself.

    I further move that any new law that delegates power to the Executive Branch must take responsibility for the words that get written into regulation.

    Even if it weren’t a word-to-word equivalence, it would still help some.

  17. Just put an automatic sunset period of 20 years on about 890% of all laws and prevent omnibus reauthorization.

  18. Mitch H, how about this as an alternative? Use a standard compression algorithm, let’s say bzip, and the entire code of laws entered as input in standard text format. The entire body of law has to compress to less than a certain size. Greatly reduces the advantage of acronyms, truncated words, and other attempts to save space.

  19. Karl, what I’m trying to get across is that the problem isn’t vast and lengthy bills, the problem is “reference/edit list” bills, which shuffle all of their work into the modification of existing legal code. Moses’ little power grab took up all of about two short sentences in a bill of less than two dozen pages. Its power was in its opacity, brevity, and obscurity. It was the very essence of the proverbial iceberg, in which the two sentences hid a veritable Antarctica of wickedness under the surface. Moses went on, later in his career, to likewise cement himself into permanent power by rendering his Triborough Authority effectively immortal by tying its existence, via bond issuance authority, the authorization of the directors’ ability to write their own by-laws within the authority, and the clever embedding of the continuance of the Authority via inviolable private contract with bond-holders. This Triangular Trade in power, cash, and protection was created by four sentences in the enabling act for the Triborough – everything else was bondwriting, contracts common law, and authority bylaws. Are we going to include bondwriting in the wordcount? Regulations created on direction of the law in question? Commentary & judicial decisions as a result of the law?

    There are no legislative silver bullets when clever lawyers are on the prowl. They will find a way, barring the depredations of other clever lawyers with countervailing self-interest. But strong sunsetting provisions might at least clear the decks every so many years, and tie up the clever lawyers in re-drawing the old evils anew.

  20. Karl, what I’m trying to get across is that the problem isn’t vast and lengthy bills, the problem is “reference/edit list” bills, which shuffle all of their work into the modification of existing legal code.

    I have to disagree. There is no master flaw from which the rest follow. Carl’s suggestion attempts to address problems that come from excessive complexity of law. I doubt he presumes to address all possible abuses of legislative power.

  21. I think it would probably be simpler to just require Congress to repeal two laws for each new one they pass.

    OK, eventually we might find that we are running out of laws. Wake me when that happens.

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