I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Must Laws Be Long?

I've discussed this topic before, but after Max Baucus announced his health care reform bill this week, I've found myself once more obsessed with an aspect of lawmaking I don't understand. Why is every bill that now emerges from congress a 1000 page plus monster?

The second the Baucus bill was arrived, critics from both the right and left took their knives to it. Everyone could find one provision that they couldn't abide. At the beginning of the year, I was certain that the president would get something out of congress he could call Health Care reform and sign it triumphantly. Now, I'm not so sure. The problem is, all the bills that are getting designed have a core of attractive items in them, but then glom on stuff that seems guaranteed to be opposed by a majority. I suppose the idea is, you use the popular items as leverage to pass the unpopular ones. But, in this case, I'm starting to think that the whole enterprise will crash and burn, and nothing at all is going to pass.

The big bills wind up being almost impossible to explain to the American public. The president can't go on TV and tell us everything that's in a 1000 page bill in a half hour. He might explain five or six popular provisions of a bill, but the second he stops talking critics will jump in to talk about the others and the general public will wind up with the feeling that they are getting sold a pig in a poke. The legislation is so complex, any sane person is going to be suspicious of it. No average citizen with a day job and a personal life is going to be able to sit down and read all the bills to form an opinion on them.

But if the president really wanted the five or six reforms that he most often talks about, couldn't each of these reforms be introduced as a seperate bill? This week, we vote on new rules for recission. Next week, we vote on a program to set up insurance co-ops. The week after, vote on a bill that standardizes insurance application forms. The following week, shoot for a bill that would allow for more portability of insurance between jobs.

Some bills would pass, some would fail. My gut instinct is, you might actually see a return of bipartisanship on the more popular measures. Small, tightly targetted bills would be easier to explain to constituents. The general public wouldn't live with the worry that their lawmakers were trying to hide the truth of what they were attempting to do from them.

If health care reform does eventually fail, it won't be the Republicans or the rabble rousing public that have doomed it. It will be the stupid, pointless complexity of trying to do a hundred things with a single vote.


Loren Eaton said...

James, James, James. Are you insinuating that our elected officials might be making massive changes without properly considering the consequences? Why, I always thought they only had our best interests at heart -- right? Right?

Mr. Cavin said...

Plus, you seem to assume that congress should come to work four weeks in a row. That certainly seems to be asking a lot. We don't even pay most of them two hundred thousand dollars a year, you know.

gch14 said...

Well, this is new...
James, Cavin, person I don't know named Loren... Yes, a lot of bills come through Congress all porked out. I haven't read the bill in question, so I don't know if that's the case here. But pork isn't the only reason for massive bills. The main reason, in my humble opinion, is because the folks the laws are intended to govern don't like to follow laws. Example: In this case we are discussing a law to govern insurance companies (IC's). One much bandied about component of said intended law is: IC's will no longer be allowed to deny coverage to an individual based on a pre-existing condition. First, you can't say "deny coverage." You have to say "discriminate against based on pre-existing condition." Then, you must imagine and list every possible definition of "discriminate" as it might apply in this situation! Why? Because if you don't the IC's, using the room full of lawyers they own, will shoot your simple "deny" law full of a million loop-holes, and just keep on doing what they are doing. (Can't deny you coverage? Of course not! Here's your coverage offer, BUT while this healthy guy gets it for $10 a day, because of your PRE-EXISTING condition, you get to pay $1000 a day!)

James Maxey said...

Loren, I think a majority do act with the best interests of their constituents at heart. If I were a congressman from eastern North Carolina, it's understandable that I'd support a grant of $9 million to build a hog waste collection facility. In the light of a 9 trillion dollar debt, this is only increasing the debt by .000001 percent. It's the same logic I had in mind when I charged a pirate hat to my credit card. I still owe over ten grand on my credit cards despite really hammering away at them for a year. What's an extra $25 bucks? Of course, it was hundreds of such decisions over a decade that got my debts so stupidly large in the first place.

Cavin, I hadn't considered the unintended consequence that congressmen might stay in session longer. Now you've got me nervous!

Greg! Good to see you, man. I couldn't disagree more with your point. Long, convoluted laws do more to give comfort to special interests than to reign them in.

The climate bill: The goal of this legislation is to cut carbon dioxide. This is simple if you seriously want to do it. The biggest source of carbon going into the air is coal fired power plants. Coal is amazingly cheap. In 2007, the cost to generate a million BTUs was only $1.78 with coal. Natural gas costs $7.10, but is cleaner. Coal costs roughly $30 per ton. To wean power companies from it, set the tax per ton at $100. This would make natural gas cheaper than coal. Solar and wind might look cost competitive.

A second source of carbon is burning gasoline. A $2 tax on a gallon of gas would seriously cut emissions and make electric cars competitive. The legislation could fit on a 3x5 card.

Of course, no congressman is going to vote for either of these ideas, because people would burn their effigies in the street. So, they draft a thousand page bill creating these cap and trade systems for carbon to hide the fact that it's going to raise energy costs. But, the cap and trade legislation is probably only a few paragraphs of the bill. All the other paragraphs are explaining the loopholes and exceptions and workarounds that industries will be able to navigate through in order to avoid paying a single dime. Probably, they'll come out of this at a profit, because there will provisions giving them grants and tax breaks to offset "costs" that they won't actually have to pay.

Sorry to be so cynical. But, yesterday, the Raleigh paper had an editorial from the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina in favor of the the Baucus health care bill. This tells me they are looking at health care reform as a win for them; they have to be salivating over the individual mandate. I wouldn't be shocked at all to find out that maybe they've even helped write the legislation. (Again, this is just speculation. I have no hard evidence because I'm too lazy to, you know, research it.)

To me, short, plainly written laws would be effective. Long, loophole riddled laws exist solely to funnel public money to various interests.

Last year, everyone was shocked when Paulson went to congress with a three page bill asking to funnel $700 billion of tax money to buy bad mortgages. The congress was shocked, shocked by such a naked grab of money. So, it failed to pass until they had written a few hundred pages of regulations and pork. Then Paulson (or was it Bernanke... again, too lazy to google) got the money, then didn't buy any bad mortgages. He just used the money to pump dollars directly into failing banks, but left the bad loans on their books. A short, simple law probably wouldn't have given him this authority. The long, convoluted law had the effect of letting him do pretty much whatever he wanted with the funds. Congress had to fuzzy it up so that when he acted this way, they could say, "We didn't have time to read the bill! This wasn't what we intended!"


There's a reason lobbyists are paid more than congressmen. They are much more effective at their jobs.