Complex Language: Why You Should Fire Congress

When you’re bad at your job, you get fired. And that’s exactly what voters should do to Congress this fall. Forget about wars, unemployment, recession and healthcare reform. Congress should be fired for failing at the most essential part of their job—writing laws.

Sure, they’ve got to give speeches and cast votes, but when it comes down to it, they represent the people who elected them by writing laws. We call them lawmakers, but really, they’re law writers. And their writing skills leave much to be desired.

First, let’s talk about the length of laws Congress writes these days. The Dodd-Frank Act runs on for 2,300 pages. The healthcare reform bill goes on for more than 900 pages.

Allow me to put this in perspective. This great democracy of ours was founded on roughly 13 pages (if the Framers of the Constitution were using 12-point Times News Roman on standard letter-size sheets). The brave men who told King George III where he could shove his taxes and other injustices did so in just 1,320 words (3.25 pages using same method described above).

Length aside, word choice and composition often resemble an engineer’s technical specifications more than laws that promote and ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the complexity of Medicare and Medicaid law language:

“A typical provision of Medicare, for instance, reads like this:

‘In the case of a plan for which there are average per capita monthly savings described in section 1395w–24 (b)(3)(C) or 1395w–24 (b)(4)(C) of this title, as the case may be, the amount specified in this subparagraph is the amount of the monthly rebate computed under section 1395w–24 (b)(1)(C)(i) of this title for that plan and year (as reduced by the amount of any credit provided under section 1395w–24 (b)(1)(C)(iv) [2] of this title).’”

This type of writing is not reserved for only Medicare and Medicaid law. It permeates all legislation Congress produces. Pick any legislation posted on and you’ll find that similar atrocities abound.

Lawyers and lawmakers will tell you that’s just the way it has to be.

“They are trying to achieve complex ends. The more fair way to look at it is they have a lot of considerations they try to balance,” says Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “You can’t get away from complexity. We live in a complex world.”

I disagree. Sure, the issues Congress legislates are complex, but we can absolutely escape complexity when it comes to writing laws. That excuse says more about the laziness of lawmakers than the complexity of our world.

Congress doesn’t need to use complex words or complicated sentences to legislate complex issues. Instead they need the skill and the courage to be clear and simple in the laws they write. It’ll take a lot of effort and handwringing to describe something like healthcare or financial reform clearly and succinctly, but it’s not impossible. It’s quite possible—it just requires Congress to be straightforward and honest about their ideas

And don’t Americans deserve that?

Leanne Libert is a senior information architect for the Siegel+Gale New York office.


1 Comment

  1. W.T. "Bill" McKibben on March 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Ms. Leanne is on the money. Unfortunately laws are interpreted by the courts and lawyers, and so they have to be made “Lawyer proof.” Until the day that “Dick the Butcher’s” suggested fate for all lawyers comes to pass we have to live with the convoluted and lengthy language of the law.