Keep It Simple -- The Case Against Comprehensive Reform

by Conor Friedersdorf

Writing in Salon, Michael Lind argues "against comprehensive reform -- on any issue." It's music to my ears. In cautioning against "giant, complicated, omnibus pieces of legislation that are supposed to solve multiple problems at the same time and for a long time to come," he draws on history. The Missouri Compromise was voted down when Henry Clay tried to pass it as an omnibus bill, he recalls. Only Stephen Douglas' insight that it could be broken up into 5 separate pieces of legislation, passed by distinct Congressional majorities, saved the effort.

There are no doubt modern cases where a piecemeal strategy is the best strategic route for passing a package of reforms. Health care? Immigration? Social Security? But I am more persuaded by other arguments against "comprehensive" solutions. As Mr. Lind notes, these bills "try to address too many problems at the same time," and the ones that fail kill the legislative appetite for any subsequent reform efforts on the same issue.

I'd add a couple critiques of my own.

The worst thing about "comprehensive reform" efforts are that they shut the average citizen out of the legislative process by making bills so complicated that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen to properly evaluate whether on balance it is a wise or unwise measure. Who can predict all the effects of a 3,000 page bill spanning all manner of issues? Often times not even the legislature itself. Certainly not the press, which often focuses on bits of the legislation that won't actually have the most impact, sometimes because legislators themselves are deliberately obscuring what's actually at stake.

Comprehensive reform also seems more prone to capture by narrow lobbying interests who take advantage of its complexity to insert provisions they'd be hard pressed to get away with were more discrete questions being addressed.

In a prior post, I called for a Congress that reads all the bills it passes. Together with an effort to make small, piecemeal improvements to public policy, rather than the kind of sweeping efforts that flatter vanities but fail citizens, two simple reforms would go a long way toward improving legislative outcomes.