Ending Legislative Gobbledygook

chestertonI recently commented on the absurdity of having members of Congress vote on bills they have not had time to read. This essay addresses a closely related problem—the fact that most bills are difficult, if not impossible, to understand even when there is ample time to read them. Here are two typical passages:

Excerpt from the Final Version of the Affordable Health Care Act, Sec. 107.

Application of Extended Amortization Periods go Plans with Delayed Effective Date: “(a) In General- If the plan sponsor of a plan to which section 104, 105, or 106 of this Act applies elects to have this section apply for any eligible plan year (in this section referred to as an ‘election year’), section 302 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and section 412 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as in effect before the amendments made by this subtitle and subtitle B) shall apply to such year in the manner described in subsection (b) or (c), whichever is specified in the election. All references in this section to ‘such Act’ or ‘such Code’ shall be to such Act or such Code as in effect before the amendments made by this subtitle and subtitle B.”

Excerpt from the Final Version of the “Fiscal Cliff Act,” section 634:

Section 1833(t)(16) of the Social Security Act (42 8 U.S.C. 1395l(t)(16)) is amended by adding at the end the  following new subparagraph: (D) SPECIAL PAYMENT RULE.—‘‘(i) IN GENERAL.—In the case of covered OPD services furnished on or after April 1, 2013, in a hospital described in clause (ii), if—‘‘(I) the payment rate that would otherwise apply under this subsection for stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of treatment of cranial lesion(s) consisting of 1 session that is multi-source Cobalt 60 based (identified as of January 1, 2013, by HCPCS code 77371 (and any succeeding code) and reimbursed as of such date under APC 0127 (and any succeeding classification group)); exceeds ‘‘(II) the payment r ate that would otherwise apply under this subsection for linear accelerator based stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of therapy in one session (identified as of January 1, 2013, by HCPCS code G0173 (and any succeeding code) and reimbursed as of such date under APC 0067 (and any succeeding classification group)), the payment rate for the service described in subclause (I) shall be reduced to an amount equal to the payment rate for the service described in subclause (II).

Do you understand what you just read? If you don’t, join the crowd.

A little over a century ago, G. K. Chesterton addressed this problem, among others, in his brilliant book, Orthodoxy. The relevant passage is:

Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves . . . If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words. It is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

Chesterton’s observation is every bit as applicable today as it was when he wrote it. Which raises the question, why would lawmakers make legislation so impenetrable that it virtually defies understanding? There are two possible answers, one cynical, one charitable.

The cynical answer is that lawmakers want their legislation to be so opaque that neither their constituents nor investigative reporters will be willing to endure the struggle of figuring out what it actually says. The charitable answer is that lawmakers either don’t know how to write simple English prose—a plausible explanation given the sorry state of English instruction—or that they have been intimidated by the legions of lawyers that surround them to embrace the fallacy that legalese is more meaningful than simple English prose.

Either answer is consistent with the fact that nowadays virtually every piece of legislation looks and sounds as if it had been written by a team of such lawyers. And whichever answer is correct, the end result is the same—because of the opacity of legislation, whatever errors in fact and/or judgment it may contain are likely to be detected only after taxpayers’ hard-earned money has been confiscated and squandered.

What, then, is the solution to this legislative nightmare? I’d like to say set up a lawyer-free zone around every office in which legislation is written and subject violators to a huge fine and disbarment. As satisfying as that solution is to express, however, it is at best impractical.

A more reasonable and effective solution would be to borrow the central idea of the communication rage known as “Twitter.”

The practice of Twitter consists of “tweeting” a message to the world using no more than 140 characters. (That would mean from 20 to 40 words, depending on their length.) Those who are enamored of Twitter—full disclosure, I have never tried it—are said to like both the challenge of writing concisely and the ease of reading such writing.

For legislation, of course, the word-limit would have to be adjusted and other specifications added. I recommend the following stipulations:

  1. No bill shall be longer than one single-spaced page or two double-spaced pages.
  2. Within this page limitation, each bill will identify the problem it addresses, the solution it proposes, the rationale supporting the solution, and the details of implementation.
  3. No bill shall contain any provision that is not directly related to the problem being addressed.
  4. Every proposed bill will be made public no less than one month before it is voted on.

Stipulations 1, 2, and 4 would ensure that all legislation is simply and clearly written and available for public examination and evaluation, making it easier for citizens to formulate and express their views on issues, as well as to appraise their representatives’ job performance.

Stipulation 3 would instantly cure Congress’ addiction to “pork” spending. If a member of congress believed in the urgency of investigating the mating habits of a rare beetle, or instituting a tattoo removal program, or “continued development of an obsolete fighter engine,” then he or she would have to make it the subject of a special bill rather than bury it in a bill for disaster relief.

The only way this solution could be become a reality, of course, is if a truly impressive number of Americans made phone calls and sent emails and letters to Washington demanding it. The question is, are enough citizens fed up with the current state of affairs to do so?

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved