StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between



Calling Out Clive Crook

17 Feb 2009
Posted by Stan Collender

I know and truly like Clive Crook.  We were colleagues for a while when I wrote for nationaljournal.com, and the BTW and I have joined Clive and his wonderful wife for dinner a number of times.  He is smart, perceptive, funny, and a gifted writer.

And that's why I'm surprised that Clive would use a truly ridiculous statistic like this when posting about the economic stimulus plan:

Republicans have a point when they complain about the inordinate length of the bill–1,400 pages or thereabouts...

Would a shorter bill have made it better?  At less than 3 pages and at a cost of $700 billion, was the original version of the TARP that Hank Paulson sent to Congress a gem?  Should the legalese needed to make the changes in the stimulus bill been dropped or shortened so that many provisions would have been subject to court challenges and the money never spent?

What Clive seems to be saying is that, at 1400 pages, the bill could not possibly have been reviewed in detail by many members of Congress before they voted for it given the rush to get it done.  What he doesn't say is that most representatives and senators generally only review the parts of any bill that are important to them for some reason.  They may look at the parts that pertain to their committee assignment or which are relevant to their district or state.  More likely, they've had their personal or committee staff look at the bill and tell them whether there's anything they need to be concerned about.

But citing the number of pages as a reason to think legislation is bad is ridculous.  That's on a par with football commentators talking about the number of minutes one team has had the ball compared to the other or the greater number of plays one team has run.  It's also similar to the meaningless total number of points one tennis player has won during a match compared to the other.

These statistics are meaningless and often completely misleading.  The same can be said for the number of pages in legislation.

Wait, There's More! Update: Clive responds.

Saying that passing

Saying that passing legislation without actually reading or comprehending it is business as usual is not exactly reassuring to me. "We never have any idea what we're voting for unless it touches on our own little bailiwick, so why start now just because it's the largest spending bill ever?"


Clive's actually right on this one...

I think Clive's point went to complaints about process.

Recall that Obama made promises about posting legislation on the Internet for a period before signing, etc. Also, we'd like it if Members of Congress had a better understanding of what they're voting on. Obviously, it won't happen. Note that he also says its the nature of the beast, and happened under the Rs as well.

There's a LOT we'll learn about this bill only after it becomes law.

What's more concerning is that anyone who raises ANY concerns / objections to this bill seems to get pilloried, even when making the perfectly valid points he did. In the context he made it (process - not substance), his statistic was perfectly valid.


posting legislation on the Internet

It's out there on the Internet. I've seen links several places, including Huffington.


Objection

I agree the length per se is not a problem. However, the length combined with the limited amount of time between when the bill was released and when it was passed is not appropriate. Even if representatives would not have read the bill, watchdog groups would have and they could bring troublesome issues (such as changes to the Clinton welfare reforms) to the public's attention.

Objections that the need for the bill was so urgent that we could not wait fall flat, given that Obama still took a three day weekend before signing it. He committed during his campaign to publish all bills online 5 days before passage to allow public scrutiny and debate and this situation, while urgent, is not sufficiently so to overturn this commitment.


Clumsy comparison

I would disagree with the claim that time of possession and number of plays are meaningless statistics. Football players are athletes, and as such are subject to fatigue, both physical and mental. A lopsided time of possession may give clues as to why one team's defense has gradually fallen apart.

In tennis, total points may give a more granular representation of how the match has progressed. What looks like a blowout in straight sets may appear to be a much tighter match if you look at the total points, etc.

I would suggest the comparison that judging a bill by its length is like judging a computer program by the number of lines of code. All else being equal, shorter is better, but sometimes you just can't say all that you need to in 500 words or less.

Take a web browser for example. At the top level you want to tell it to "go to www.reddit.com and display the page," but to do that correctly, pass the right info around, check for errors, parse responses, format output, etc, takes a whole lot more than those 7 words.


test

test


Review

"What he doesn't say is that most representatives and senators generally only review the parts of any bill that are important to them for some reason. They may look at the parts that pertain to their committee assignment or which are relevant to their district or state"

And that's okay? I realise that's the reality, but it shouldn't be okay. It validates Congress as a collection of local ward bosses somehow aggregating into a national government rather than a group of people who see the big picture and take a national view without having to be told to.


Yes, it's OK

Nobody is expert at everything. It's important that every part of the bill be reviewed by someone who can give reasonable feedback on the impact of that part, but it's not reasonable to expect that any one person could give expert review of every part.

I would expect that every member of Congress would have experts (either staff or outside experts) she can depend on to do that analysis.


Your expectations are too

Your expectations are too great. Members rely typically on centralized information controlled by some aspect of the Chamber's leadership to understand all but a small portion of such legislation. We will here many members complain that they didn't know "such and such" was in the bill when they voted for it. Alternatively, they at least have that excuse even if they did because the short time window and magnitude of the bill makes it plausible.


Actually the length is a problem

"What he doesn't say is that most representatives and senators generally only review the parts of any bill that are important to them for some reason."

Alas, the entire contents of the bill are important to their constituents (who don't get to read the final product until it is passed). Perhaps a 1,400 page bill is far better than a 1,300 page bill, but how would anyone know if no one reads it?

(The single virtue of the original TARP bill was its length. We didn't like the contents, but at least we knew what they were.)


I really don't want my

I really don't want my senator or congressmember reading a 40 page or 1400 page bill anymore than I would want the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company to be reading more than 2-3 well-written pages of a summary memorandum from a trusted and knowledgable staff person.


2 or 3 pages is not nearly

2 or 3 pages is not nearly enough...and how does the person who writes that memo get their information? They need to read summaries of the bill. More time = more Members (and staff) having a better (but not perfect) understanding. Less time = less understanding.


1400 pages to digest is a big meal indeed. Doggy bag needed?

Reviewing anything as important as a Bill on which a good portion of the Nation's fiscal stability rests would require-at least- a thorough reading and a cost-effective analysis of how each and every part would contibute to the ultimate goal of the whole bill. A short, mid-level and long-term value relative to the dollar spent/jobs created ratio is vital.
Without reasonable data, all economic forcasts based on a largely unanalyzed document are mostly in the area of hopeful thinking. Until the day arrives when pork is just a by-product of a well-trimmed, thoughtful and analyzed product- instead of being either the main ingredient or in a dead heat, we will continue to suffer at the hands of a system which has become unresponsive to the timely needs of the citizenry. This bill has a lot more to do with the re-election hopesof a few than it does with the needs of the many. Perhaps it is time to tune Nero's fiddle and get a good seat in the stands (Switzerland? The Cayman Islands?) as the swan-song of empire decline plays out its mournful dirge.


1,400 pages! Or not!

I'm sure the bill is very long. I'm also sure that if the text of the bill it were printed in normal type it would as long as a book--a short book. Bills are often printed on small, paper-back-sized sheets of paper, in extra-large type, so that old men can read them without glasses. This practice probably dates back to the 19th century. Bills are often bundled with "committee reports" that are much longer than the bills themselves.

Objecting to a bill because Republicans say it is 1,400 pages long is BS. Of course, I think there's a lot that can be objected to--like why a payroll tax cut wasn't included.


1400 pages or not...

I'm a regular ol' citizen who's been working on reading the bill, and I sure agree with Mr Vanneman about the print size and page style - I'll bet more conventional formatting would be 1/2 - 1/3 the length.
The thing I found the silliest about the "no time to read it" objection is that the conference bill was a compromise with relatively few substantive changes. If members of either house had spent any time with either the house or the senate bill, they didn't need to read the whole thing - just the changes. Those are all laid out in the conference reports - which are easy to read and fewer than 300 pages altogether.


You assume Members had the

You assume Members had the time to fully digest what was in the bills when originally passed, so that reading the conference report would sufficiently enlighten them as to the final product.

Simply not so.


But they had time after

and before the conference compromise was passed. I'm not saying that reading a lengthy bill isn't a burden. But it is not a burden beyond the mental capacities of our elected representatives and their staffs. Now, is that a valid criticism, that one voted against the bill because it was TOO HARD TO READ?

What's next? Aesthetics? "I oppose this bill because it was it was printed using Arial as a typefont, and not Helvetica. (If we get to that point, I know some designers who should never be elected to legislative office.)


You clearly have never read a

You clearly have never read a Congressional bill. It's probably like reading 300 pages of text (because the bills are doubled spaces and the pages small) and much of it only makes sense if you have a copy of the US code sitting nearby.


I think the length of the

I think the length of the bill is a good proxy for the estimated amount of pork and waste that is included in it. A good stimulus bill should be tightly focused on what works (whichever ideology you subscribe to) and easy to explain, not a shotgun blast full of pet projects.


I think the length of the

I think the length of the bill is a good proxy for the estimated amount of pork and waste that is included in it. A good stimulus bill should be tightly focused on what works (whichever ideology you subscribe to) and easy to explain, not a shotgun blast full of pet projects.


1400 Pages or not

First, we are a Republic, so 1400 pages to the general public is irrelevant. However, to the policymaker, it is relevant. Not to be too highbrow, but to quote Einstein, "everthing should be as simple as possible, but not simpler" - this applies to legislation. Hence, at this size of bill 2000 or more pages could have been reasonable, and the legislators who voted on this could have been given 3 days to review. Or, 500 may have been enough - tough to know. E.G. the first TARP, even after modification! resulted in ZERO trasparency; note, at this point ZERO idea where 350B went, and perhaps the ultimate example of taxation without representation (and I'm a Dem) Amazing! That being said it was less bad than not passing a bill (banks needed liquidity!), but set a bad precedent. Note, the Feds will never again allow an institution such as Lehman to fail - it was almost akin to pulling the carbon rods from a nuclear pile... almost... think if BofA or JPMorgan were to fail? AIG was right there.
But with regard to TARP, we didn't even guarantee it would increase liquidity in the housing market - or at least soften the landing directly. So, even if this stimulus bill isn't perfect (and none will be, as opinions are, as is often said, like a certain body part) - at least we agree, a)we need a bill, b) the general magnitude, and c) the expediency with which it needs to be enacted.
That being said, Obama will not be perfect, and give him some time. At least, by most indications, and esp. given the comparative competency of the campaigns, he is the best suited for the position. As for California, the constitution requirements for taxation and proposition system is fundamentally broken.
No bill should be able to pass without reasonable proof of solid funding. Moreover, taxation should be easy to pass. What should be relatively more difficult is spending. e.g. it should require majority of legislature to enact taxation, but at least 60% to pass a spending bill (or some number greater). Yes, I'm a Democrat, but at least then we could argue about how to keep our house in order, i.e. have a tax base and argue how to spend the money. Moreover, think about the last 8 years had this been the case with Mr. Bush in office - the Republicans would have had to work with the Democrats to a much greater degree. Finally, the pay for legislators should be stopped if a budget deadline is not achieved. Even after it is met, if the budget is not on-time, they should have to pay a penalty until the next budget. This would ensure they do not forget their obligation to the taxpayer.

Finally, if we learn nothing from the last 8 years, it is that the legislators should have a longer term, and probably one term limits.
e.g. Senators with 10 yrs., Representatives with 5 years. Moreover, allow no campaiging until 8 months prior to any election. We need these people to work, and do what's best for the country - not best for their careers! Moreover, we need them competent, hence in office longer.
And finally, this might, just might help us avoid the ridiculous situation whereby we completely dropped the ball on reasonable legislation to have solid oversight of our financial markets such that we avoid the ponzi type situations that developed do to inadequate regulation.

Richard


I don't think the problem is

I don't think the problem is that congressional members didn't read the bill; the problem is that practically no one did. When you have that sort of massively important legislation, it's good to have it out in the public view for some time so that the press, citizens, lawyers, etc. can go over it independently and bring to light questionable passages that might otherwise be missed.


The time allowed isn't an issue.

There are enough staffers just in the GOP to make short work of the entire 1400 pages.

Take 200 people. Assign 14 pages to each pair of two readers, so each span gets looked at by two sets of eyes that are looking for politically advantageous or objectionable material. How long would it take two Congressional staffers to read 14 pages?

Dividing it up shouldn't be a big problem. It's not like checking a novel for continuity errors, where the person reading chapter 8 needs to know what happened in chapter 3 in order to flag that a character's nationality and hair color have changed.

Within an hour, the entire bill should have been examined twice over. Within the next hour, the objections and complaints should have been collected, reviewed, and double-checked. After that, there's plenty of time to draft and issue the press releases and contact FOX News.

This is low-hanging fruit. If the GOP isn't doing this simple thing, it's probably because they don't want similar scrutiny given to their own bills - and they're probably afraid that if someone else checks over their area of interest, their own pork will be highlighted for scorn.


And how do all those people

And how do all those people then come together to share what's in their 14 pages? A vulcan mind meld.

To clarify, the use of 1400 pages bills isn't a R vs D issue - the party in power does it to the party NOT in power. It's not pretty, but its unfortunately how things get done in DC.


cover to cover?

I'd wager that there is not ONE senator who has ever read a bill from cover to cover. They don't even understand the legalese. Senators are more interested in "lights, camera, action!" and let their staff do the heavy lifting.


Distribution of responsibility

Something politicians understand very well, but the public is very unclear about, is that responsibility is distributed among Representatives and Senators. It makes the lawmaking process up to 535 times more efficient.

Sure, they all vote on the final bill, and they represent their constituents, and so on. But if you're going to have a few hundred politicos, you might as well make sure they're not all doing redundant work.

This is something that John McCain always seemed confused about during the campaign. Want to go on a crusade about 1% of the budget going to earmarks? If you're 1 of 100 Senators, that's a fine project to tackle. If you're planning on being President, you need to get perspective -- you need to concern yourself with 100% of the budget, not 1%. Of course, McCain was probably just pandering.


US Senators

"lights! Camera! Action!" Typical of US Senators? Well, maybe the first two words.


Calling Out Clive Crook

This back-and-forth reminds me that my wife is wonderful, too.




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