The literal, physical size of a bill never matters

The literal, physical size of a bill never matters
The literal, physical size of a bill never matters
Associated Press

Every time a conservative talks about the length of legislation, an angel loses its wings.

At 1,075 pages long, it’s not the biggest bill to come through in recent years – that honor still belongs to the health care law – but the immigration legislation pending in the Senate is challenging the ability of voters to get their brains around its complexity.

Touching on everything from border security to welfare programs to free trade, the massive bill is dominating legislative action this month on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are intent on pushing it through before July 4 and Republicans are trying to debate whether to go along.

One group has weighed the printed bill and said it comes to 24 pounds. That doesn’t include the 448 pages of amendments that have been filed to try to change the measure.

When opponents of a bill are reduced to talking about the literal, physical size of the legislation, they’ve completely given up on the pretense that public policy matters. If opponents of immigration reform want to debate the merits of the proposal, great. But focusing on pages and pounds is the absolute worst form of debate.

This came up quite a bit during the fight over health care reform – it was easier for the right to count the number of pages in the Affordable Care Act than debate it on the merits – so let’s review the basics.

Sometimes, when professional lawmakers and their staffs address national needs, their proposals get pretty long. That’s to be expected. We live in an advanced, 21st-century superpower, and legislation often deals with complex issues. Bills aren’t really prepared for a lay audience anyway – they’re filled with technical and legal jargon, which is necessary for it to be implemented as intended.

It’s not unique to lawmaking, either. When automotive companies design new cars, the schematics aren’t short. When scientific researchers publish studies on life-saving medication, their reports aren’t brief, either. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the research or the schematics.

What’s more, there’s something about the nature of legislation that folks sometimes forget.

If you’ve ever seen the physical page of a bill in Congress, you know that it doesn’t look like a traditional printed page. There are huge margins, a large font, and everything is double-spaced. Legislation may look enormous, but be fairly manageable.

For example, if the immigration bill is about 1,075 pages, in terms of the number of words, it’s about half the length of Sarah Palin’s first book. And while I confess that I did not read “Going Rogue,” I think it’s fair to say it was not an endless tome.

So why does this talk persist? I think it speaks to the post-policy anti-intellectualism that too often plays a role in conservative commentary. Big bills must be bad bills because they’re, you know, big.

It’s absurd.