Our View: ‘Kitchen sink’ legislation prevents clarity | Editorials

Nobody seems to be entirely sure where the phrase “go big or go home” comes from. There’s an apocryphal story about it that originated as a tagline in a California store, another that attributes it to 1980s skiers, and another that attributes it to surfing.

Regardless of the source, it is clear that lawmakers are happy to take the phrase to heart, and that is a problem. Far too often we see bills flowing through state and federal bodies replete with every idea the bill writer ever had.

There are times when lawmakers use such bills for kitchen sinks (they threw everything else in, why not the stereotype?) To form coalitions. Colleagues who see their own ideas advocated are much more likely to endorse the final bill when it is put to the vote.

But there is a risk to such approaches that affects us. Big bills inevitably raise questions about whether lawmakers have read them or understand what’s in the proposal. For example, the COVID aid bill proposed in the US House in February was almost 600 pages long. And that’s not the longest in recent memory. The CARES act from a year ago produced a bill that was more than 800 pages long.

While lawmakers actually have staff who can be tasked with reading portions of a bill and putting it together for civil servants, it is fair to ask whether anyone on Capitol Hill took a long enough break from daily squabbles to do so to do.

It is important to note that the length of a bill is not a determining factor in whether the legislation is good or bad. However, it is a potential indicator of whether lawmakers really understand what they are voting on. And we would suggest that the complexity of some pieces of legislation could well play a role in the very different conclusions that the legislature often draws from the same documents.

This last point raises a second problem. Complexity can lead to misunderstandings. Even those who act in good faith can misinterpret points in such mammoth legislation. It is a playground for those who act with bad faith.

So is it any wonder the public gets confused? When the people in charge of writing, reviewing, and voting laws argue about the meanings of words, the rest of us have little hope of untangling the mess.

Briefly can offer a partial solution. We urge the legislature to limit itself to individual topics with draft laws and to strive for clarity with regard to wording and intent.

The basic documents of our nation provide examples. The Declaration of Independence, a shout-out call that continues to this day, is a compact 1,337 words. The constitution, which sets the framework for our system of government, was about 4,500 words long. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest speech in American history, was less than 275 words.

We will admit that brevity is not a guarantee of clarity. The second amendment contains less than 30 words. Look at the confusion created by different understandings. Usually, a short piece of work makes it harder to generate confused interpretations than a long one.

The root of our concern is that confusion necessarily undermines trust. When we’re not sure what a person is saying, we wonder if it’s right. From there, it is only a short step to question the truthfulness of a speaker.

It would be naive to propose shorter pieces of legislation designed to solve specific problems and somehow restore the American people’s tarnished confidence in their leaders. But we don’t see any way how it would hurt. Today, many seem to disagree on the meaning of the words our political figures use. The clarity of intent would begin to restore some common ground and allow for better discussion and debate. Ending kitchen sink legislation would be a step in this direction.

Big ideas are one thing. Big bills are another. We urge our elected officials to give serious thought to changing their legislative approaches. Get small for a change. It could be a big win for everyone.

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