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COLUMN: A good editor would help the legislative process

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 | 11:25 a.m. CST; updated 9:37 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

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.

 


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Comments

Christopher Foote January 6, 2010 | 4:52 p.m.

Unfortunately, the Senate has a rather undemocratic rule that makes it impossible for the majority party to pass legislation if the minority party doesn't like it. I am of course referring to the filibuster. In the past this was a seldom used ploy to derail legislation. Nowadays, it would appear that the GOP is employing it for every major bill. As there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate, they must than entice two members to join them to proceed with their desired legislation. In the absence of a filibuster, they would not have had to cow-tow to Lieberman's demands. Nor would they have had to modify the bill to mollify conservative members of their own party, such as Baucus, Nelson and Landrieu.
I don't really think that the length of the bills are a subversion of democracy, rather it is the ability of 40 Republicans representing 1/3 of the population that are doing it by insisting on a supermajority to pass major legislation. Thus it is not accurate to say that Democrats have a sufficient number of members to pass legislation as it would appear that in today's polarized environment they need 60.

(Report Comment)
Jane Stuart January 6, 2010 | 6:36 p.m.

Re: Christopher Foote's comments--Not only does the minority party (GOP) dislike this health care bill, but a majority of the American people dislike it too. You are correct that there are 58 Democratic senators, but the other two who join with them to block a filibuster are Sen. Sanders (a socialist, who ran as an Independent in Vermont) and Sen. Lieberman (a former Democrat, who switched parties and ran as an Independent in Connecticut because his own party didn't like his stance on the Iraq war). They're both Democrats at heart.
As for Baucus, Nelson and Landrieu being conservative Democrats, I don't believe that for a second. If they ever were, they threw their conservative principles out the window when they agreed to vote for this massive encroachment of government in the form of a health care bill. Fiscal conservatives believe in smaller government and lower taxes. We'll see how conservative they are when it comes time to renew the Bush tax cuts, which are due to expire in 2011. Jane Stuart

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 6, 2010 | 11:43 p.m.

Great column, Colonel Miller. A little long, verbose, lengthy and extensive, but a great column of clarity without any hidden agenda, no fuzziness, not repetitive, redundant or repetitive.
Easy for lay people, such as myself, to understand, comprehend, peruse and figure out.
So too, such a fine article that I have no doubt of how much it will cost America to read it, believe it, have any intended or unintended consequences, and take away any of our freedoms.
Your column is a privilege to have. Some might believe it's their right. They are wrong.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 7, 2010 | 5:55 a.m.

Perhaps Colonel Miller's columns could be syndicated. I see a real audience for what Miller has to say in Rolla and perhaps in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis as well - but especially Springfield and Rolla. Of course his columns can be read on the Internet, and word is getting around.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote January 7, 2010 | 10:20 a.m.

@ Jane Stuart,

Joe Lieberman campaigned with John McCain in this past presidential election. McCain wanted to name him as his veep, and Lieberman surely would have accepted. Republican party elders nixed that idea, and anointed instead a little known governor from Alaska. Lieberman had some rather acrimonious things to say about the Democrats at the RNC convention. That being said, it is difficult to say what principles Mr. Lieberman holds, as he appears to change them rather capriciously. Thus I would not place him firmly in either camp (politically). I did have to chuckle at your litmus test for fiscal conservatism. The proximate cause of our current fiscal woes is Bush's tax cuts, a distant second is the recession and wall street's 2008 implosion. Decreasing revenues while maintaining unsustainable spending levels is not fiscally conservative. It simply adds debt to the government balance sheet which is passed on to subsequent generations. The tax legislation enacted between 2001 and 2006 will cost $2.48 trillion over the 2001-2010 period (http://www.ctj.org/pdf/bushtaxcutsvsheal...). That sum would be enough to cover TARP, any one of the various health care bills being kicked around without the offsetting funding to make it revenue neutral, and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, ($787 billion, $1 trillion, $300 billion respectively) with perhaps a little left over to pay down the debt. Following 2010, the deleterious effect of the tax cuts on the deficit increase for each year they remain in place (http://economistsview.typepad.com/.a/6a0...).

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand January 7, 2010 | 12:22 p.m.

Chris, each year since the tax cuts took effect, did you calculate what your taxes would have been without the cuts and then sent that difference to the Treasury? If not, why not?

(Report Comment)

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