Ask the grumpies: Would shorter bills help government?

First Gen American asks:

I was brainstorming with my friend on how to make our government more effective at driving change. One idea we had was to put a character limit on bills that go before congress. (Say a 3 page limit). So instead of having a huge proposal with 8000.sections and all kinds of ear marks, you attack a problem like health care or the economy in bite sized chunks. I am not an economist but we have implemented a similar strategy with contracts st Work. Keep them simple and add one page amendments as needed if the situation arises. We dont try to cover every scenerio ahead of time, unless its a joint venture type thing.. Nefotiating ala carte is faster than trying to do everything at once. Would love the economic’s view of this concept.

Wasn’t this one of Herman Cain’s suggestions?

Sadly, although this suggestion on the surface seems like a good idea… bills tend to be long partly for good reasons.  (Partly for bad reasons too, but earmarks are the grease on the wheels of bipartisanship.)

First, in general, we only want government intervention in the case of market failures (including paternalism).  That’s because when we have government intervention, there are almost always unintended negative consequences, and factors will almost always try to go back to their unfettered market state, even if that means people are worse off.  A lot of legislative detail goes into limiting these unintended consequences (small business exemptions, for example) or closing up loopholes.  That adds length.

Negotiating a la carte really doesn’t work in federal government.  When one party tries to hold the other up, legislation just doesn’t get passed.  I’m not an expert in political economy, but I understand that these huge bills work well because they allow compromise and earmark bribery.  Without that, things do not get done because bills are just not voted on.  There would have to be reform to the way congress does business in order to have even a chance of bringing legislative pieces to a vote.  On top of that, some things only work when all the pieces are in place and do not work a la carte.  The health care bill in particular is an example of this– costs need to come down, coverage must be mandated, and insurers must not be allowed to discriminate.  These three items need to happen together, missing any one leads to the act not working.

In business it’s different– vendor and client have similar goals and a more collegial working relationship.  In government, especially these days, political parties score points off each other by blocking the other from getting things done.  It’s less collaborative and more combative.  There are winners and losers and not just winners.  Additionally, the effect of a repeated game will be different, as congresspeople don’t get to choose who else is in congress, but business folks get to choose who they make a contract with next time.  These differences make it easier to have simpler contracts in the private sector.  (Contract theory is also not my area of expertise though.)  When parties are combative, I bet contracts get longer and cover more contingencies– in fact, I bet someone has already published a lovely model describing that idea, and possibly even tested it.

So, bottom-line– those bills are huge because government isn’t efficient and needs to cover all its bases.

5 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Would shorter bills help government?”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Bills aren’t long because “government is inefficient”. Bills are long because the shitte they legislate is intrinsically f*cken complicated, and they need to provide reasonable certainty to a vast diverse array of actors as to how their activities are implicated.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Which is a shorter way of summarizing the post.

      Except that government intervention is not efficient by design. It’s just more efficient than the unfettered free market in cases in which government intervention is justified.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    Great Response, thanks. I wish driving change was less combative in government. I worked for one of the largest companies in the world and I see a lot of similarities..trying to make stockholder’s happy, etc. It was a culture of constant change and continuous improvement, so people didn’t fight change, they embraced it (at least the ones who survived did).

    PS. Sorry for all my typos in the question.

  3. New Kid on the Hallway Says:

    This isn’t quite the same thing, perhaps, but FWIW, one of the states I’ve lived in has a single-subject legislation requirement. That is, legislation can only address one thing at a time – so you can’t have the kind of omnibus bills that you see in Congress, tackling everything and the kitchen sink. The idea is that it prevents people being able to get their pet project/pork passed by tacking it on to something more popular. I actually think it’s a pretty good idea (although you do get the occasional lawsuit about whether something actually is the same subject or not). That said, I don’t think it creates more efficient government (although that’s not what was proposed here as doing so).

    Also, negotiating after the fact definitely doesn’t working when passing legislation, because apart from the desire of the political parties to block each other, you will also have a crapton of lawsuits about what exactly the legislation means – hence attempts to cover all your bases before passing it. (Example: Colorado’s law allowing use of medical marijuana said the holder of a mm card could possess/use marijuana, and a caretaker could administer (sell) it. But it didn’t say who qualified as a caretaker, and it didn’t say anyone could actually grow the stuff – even though someone who’s using the stuff has to get it from someone. Hence, lots of lawsuits about what people could actually do. [To be fair to the legislature, I’m pretty sure that law came from a voter referendum, so the pros in the legislature weren’t involved in writing it.] While legislatures can come together to pass emergency legislation to address gaps in previously-passed laws, it has to be a big deal for it to happen outside of the usual legislative process. And making laws retrospective is complicated and can’t always be done.

    It is a nifty thought, though!

  4. femmefrugality Says:

    Great thought. And great response. I wish we could all just be logical and write “don’t be an asshole” into every bill that we try to pass. And that it would be inherently understood when those violating the intended spirit of the law was being an asshole. But spelling it out explicitly is much more realistic.

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