Paper Weight

The health care bill is more than 1,000 pages. Is that a lot?

With the debate over health care reform heating up, one peculiar criticism keeps surfacing: That the bill—or, at least, the House version —is too long. “I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills,”said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., at a town hall meeting on Wednesday. Back in June, Newt Gingrich complained on Fox News that “[t]his bill is already 1,000 pages long.” It’s now 1,018 pages, to be exact—is that especially long for a bill?

Not really. Sure, most legislation is much shorter: The average statute passed by the 109th Congress—the latest session for which figures are available—clocked in at around 15 pages, according to the Senate Library. And the recent law authorizing President Obama to give gold medals to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing filled just two pages. But major spending bills frequently run more than 1,000. This year’s stimulus bill was 1,100 pages. The climate bill that the House passed in June was 1,200 pages. Bill Clinton’s 1993 health care plan was famously 1,342 pages long. Budget bills can run even longer: In 2007, President Bush’s ran to 1,482 pages.

Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)

Bills are getting longer because they’re getting harder to pass. Increased partisanship over the years has meant that the minority party is willing to do anything it can to block legislation—adding amendments, filibustering, or otherwise stalling the lawmaking process. As a result, the majority party feels the need to pack as much meat into a bill as it can—otherwise, the provisions might never get through. Another factor is that the federal government keeps expanding. Federal spending was about $2.7 trillion in 2007. That’s up from $92 billion 50 years ago. And as new legislation is introduced, past laws need to be updated. The result: more pages.

Bonus Explainer: Do members of Congress actually read legislation? It depends. If a lawmaker is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, say, chances are he’ll read all—or, at least, most—of a climate bill. But he probably would not read every last word of an education bill. Instead, he’d just read the parts that he considers important—perhaps because they’re controversial. Furthermore, since bills often read like bureaucratic gibberish, lawmakers hire aides with various policy specialties to study the legislation in depth and summarize it. (The job of actually converting the policy ideas into legislative language goes to the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Counsel.) So when a lawmaker “reads” a bill, it’s usually a combination of glossing summaries of the less important stuff and, when necessary, poring over the actual text to understand the more crucial bits.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Eric Lane of Hofstra University, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office. Thanks also to reader Jordan Goldmeier for asking the question.