Germane – What Should And Should Not Be Placed In A Bill To Keep Legislation Easy To Understand And Appropriate – Guest Essayist: James D. Best

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DOLLAR LIMITATION.—The amount of the penalty imposed by this section on any taxpayer for any taxable year with respect to all individuals for whom the taxpayer is liable under subsection (b)(3) shall not exceed an amount equal to 300 percent the applicable dollar amount (determined without regard to paragraph (3)(C)) for the calendar year with or within which the taxable year ends.

There is a reason few legislators read laws before voting. They’re incomprehensible. The above snippet is only sixty-three of nearly four thousand equally confusing words prescribing the individual mandate for the Affordable Care Act. The total bill ran over one thousand pages. Do you blame Justice Antonin Scalia or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for not reading the bill? This is a perfectly awful bill … and that may be the only perfect thing about it.

The ACA was not an anomaly. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, frequently called the 2018 omnibus spending bill, is 2,232 pages of similarly confusing text. No individual could possibly understand what’s in the bill.

In Federalist 62, James Madison wrote,

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.”

Forget ordinary citizens, how do we get lawmakers to understand pending legislation? The Affordable Care Act was 381,517 words, and that doesn’t count the innumerable referenced laws that would also need to be read for a full understanding. In comparison, our Constitution, the supreme law of the land, is only 4,543 words, which high school students can understand (as demonstrated year after year by Constituting America).

The ACA is only one example. Most legislation today is unintelligible. Congressmen and Senators rely on staff and lobbyists to write and then brief them on the content of laws.

Who benefits from laws “so incoherent that they cannot be understood?” Lawmakers, especially, the leadership. Big, heavy, humongous bills avoid accountability. No individual member of Congress can be saddled with responsibility for a vote disliked by his constituency because dozens of other desirable elements provide camouflage and/or shelter.

Despite calls for regular order, “read the bill” movements, and legislative review-time rules, comprehensive/omnibus style bills keep burying those of us who reside outside the beltway. There is an old axiom that laws are like sausages; it’s better not to see them made. But reverting to a bygone era of relatively responsible lawmaking will be difficult because getting reelected is easier when the proverbial sausage is concealed in a vast vat of stew. Politicians love to obfuscate.

How do we force easy-to-understand laws that lawmakers and law-abiding citizens can comprehend? By insisting Congress pass smaller, single issue bills. In the real world, point solutions are popular because they are doable … and results can be measured. If something needs fixing, focus legislation on the broken part, and leave the rest alone until the new law’s effectiveness can be assessed. If there are multiple broken parts, Congress should avoid a comprehensive redesign that allows everyone to get their fingers into the cookie jar. Address one issue at a time. For spending bills, we need to return to the days when Congress separated the required legislation into six or seven clear packages, and then adhere to strict deadlines for each step of the annual appropriations process.

Every elected legislator professes to agree with the above, but massive comprehensive/omnibus bills have become ever more prevalent. If We the People want simpler, single-issue laws, then pressure must be applied to Congress. We need to keep in mind that Congress feels content with the current process, so we shouldn’t demand some kind of grand solution. The big fix will never happen. Let’s start simple, with a single category of law. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 provides a perfect opening. The president has stated that he would not sign another omnibus appropriations bill, so voters need to hold him to his promise. Tell lawmakers that we support the president’s pledge. The current spending bill funds the government for the remainder of the fiscal year – through September 30.

How convenient. Mid-term election occur on November 6, a mere six weeks after the next appropriations bill.

Voters need to hold everyone to their word.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

2 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Great essay and point. I’ve been a supporter of the TRUTH act.

    Three other groups benefit too:
    1. THE Administrative State.
    2. Lawyers, Tax accountants, any and every other type of profession that is required to parse the words into, ah eh, hmm – sausage and egg omlettes.
    3. The Paper Companies. With the declining use of paper for books, newspapers, and other written documents, voluminous incomprehensible laws and regulations may save paper from going the way of the horse buggy. Does that make all laws and regulations defacto paper industry subsidizing spending bills too? Or this that a 5th reason.

    PSD

    Reply

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