I’m six feet, four inches tall. I’m often asked to retrieve items from high shelves. My height, I suspect , has made me the accidental background of stranger’s photos (ed note: I try to smile a lot so I don’t ruin them). Height does have some advantages, though. Case in point: I (A-50) was standing in line to board a flight this morning and my elevated perch afforded me the opportunity to read over the shoulder of A-49. He was reading “A Detailed Summary of Proposed Healthcare Legislation”—it was six pages long.
Unless this document had been washed, waxed, buffed and armor-alled, I guarantee it was not a “detailed” summary of the 1900 page document our nation’s Congress has been fiddling with lately. We chatted briefly about the insanity of such a title for this committee-generated propaganda, much to the amusement of folks queuing up as B 1-30. This brief improvisational riff on the work of federal legislators reminded me of something, though.
Living in D.C., I occasionally find myself at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (I’d tell you why, but decorum encourages me to do my good deeds in secret) where Abraham Lincoln frequented. In the Lincoln Room on the first floor there is, behind some very thick glass, the original piece of paper on which President Lincoln wrote the first draft of legislation to emancipate the slaves and end slavery in America. It was one page and, it goes without saying (well, it would if I didn’t say it) handwritten.
President Lincoln’s plan to end slavery, fundamentally alter the economy of all the southern states, and provide new human rights to tens of millions of people was on ONE PAGE. Yet the 111th Congress finds it necessary to wax poetic for nearly 2000 pages to effect payment for my boo boos. (Obviously, that’s not a fair simplification of the legislation, but it WAS kinda funny and the point remains….)
Maybe the 16th President’s succinctness was laziness or perhaps just an unwillingness to tolerate the tedium involved in penning lengthy legislation. Then again, maybe there existed a general predisposition to legislative brevity that said what needed saying and left implementation details to the states and citizens. Today’s legislative process generally involves attempting to anticipate every possible reaction to the intended legislation and proactively formulating a response to those possibilities effectively creating a jobs program for attorneys. (Does anyone want to make the case that this is a welcome consequence?)
I think honest Abe was on to something from which we can learn: it should be a requirement that all legislation be hand written by the bill’s sponsor and all amendments must also be done by hand. (Neatness counts.) I think this would be an effective way to limit the voluminous mischief emanating from the hallowed halls of Congress.
Critics of their efforts, however, can continue to type until our hearts are content.
(Those wishing to disagree with the author, please mail your handwritten letters to PO Box 1234, Washington, DC, 2345X)