For those of us who write, whether for a livelihood, personal enjoyment or as a public contribution (there may or may not exist a ground swell of clamor for this last), there is a fine line between brevity and verbosity. While we all strive to be as concise as possible, nearly every wordsmith believes his or her prose to be so precise and sacrosanct that any effort at compaction is a desecration – the words flow onto the paper much as they did for Ralphie in his “Christmas Story” essay on the virtues of owning a Red Ryder BB gun.
It is normal to fall in love with one’s own work – why settle for one paragraph when two or three would greatly enhance the reader’s enlightenment? This state is more prevalent among, but not necessarily confined to, the neophyte or beginning author. Fortunately, for reader and writer alike, there has evolved a solution — the editor who, while often considered a nuisance or killjoy by the writer, serves as a coach and umpire to keep order in this field of literary endeavor.
All of which brings me to the point that in any endeavor to publish, whether it be news, opinion, education, legislation or entertainment, there must be an editor or equally experienced adult involved and committed to ensure the content is not only complete and comprehensive but also concise and comprehensible. A work so voluminous as to be unintelligible to the average citizen is a failure.
For example, numbered among the most revered documents in history are the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments. The Carta and the Declaration were inscribed on but one sheet of parchment each – the Commandments, whether chiseled in stone or put to paper, would not have required more than two tablets of either.
Additionally, my pocket-sized copy of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and its 27 Amendments is but 58 pages. To be sure, the aforementioned documents are neither expansive nor technical; however, the 1969 “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot”comprises the sum total of 480 pages.
In stark contrast, among the many bills being prepared or debated in the Congress, three are of particular interest for lack of brevity and clarity. They are the House of Representatives “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009" (1,200 plus pages), the House’s National Health Care Act (1,990 pages) and the Senate’s version of health care legislation (2,078) pages. These numbers represent the initial submissions – all have been enlarged by added entitlements to Congressional districts and states.
The sheer volume of these legislative tomes should be alarming enough, but even more disturbing is the reality of rushing them through the process without pretense of having been read by those responsible for voting on their passage or a scintilla of concern for not having done so. This inattention to detail makes it easier to ignore errors in accounting, omit embarrassing issues or place offline a programmed 21 percent reduction in Medicare payments ($250 billion “Doc Fix”), a hidden card trick to keep the total cost at or below the level promised.
And, when House clean energy and the Senate and House health care bills are larded with sops to influence (buy) the votes of selected individual House and Senate members, the integrity of the legislative process has to be viewed with suspicion. In the Senate bill alone, Nebraska, Florida, North Dakota, Louisiana and Montana were granted considerations not universal to all states — the stench from this is overpowering.
Other than not having been read, another commonality of the three pieces of legislation is the reluctance to play it straight in the cost estimates, short and long term alike. In health care, the notion that millions more can be cared for at less cost should have raised red flags in the reality that the extra taxes and costs begin immediately but the benefits are not seen until 2014.
In the realm of the clean energy or “cap and trade” legislation, far too much energy is being counted from sources nowhere near ready in cost accounting or production capacity, particularly in wind and solar power. But, rushing legislation through with little or no thought for the consequences is not new nor a monopoly of either party. The Bush administration’s Medicare Part D supplement for prescription drugs was hastily done with neither a true cost estimate or funding.
Accordingly, there is blame to be shared – if the Democrats wish to fault noncooperation by Republicans as the sticking point, so be it. But anyone who can count knows the Democrats control both chambers by sufficient margins to pass the legislation on their own.
Nevertheless, this is an abominable way to do business. Legislation affecting a major portion of the budget should be written as simply and concisely as possible, in such a manner that it can be read and understood by laymen. Is it too much to ask that each house of Congress be afforded a nonpartisan “editor” to facilitate this worthy endeavor?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.