Are laws passed by congress always huge bills? If so, why?

Whenever I hear or read about legislation being considered in Congress, it seems like it’s alway some kind of huge act that stuffs all sorts of things into the bill. The Patriot act, Obamacare, the various bailouts over the years, etc. Does Congress ever consider passing laws that are short and to the point?

As an example, what if Congress were to pass a law that read something like this?

Marijuana is legal to possess, use, and sell under US federal law.

I don’t want this to turn into a debate on legalizing marijuana. The situation that I’m wondering about is Trump sending in federal LEO to Portland and possibly other cities, and what Congress can do about that. Rather than getting into another huge crime reform bill, it seems to me a simple law might work. But again, I don’t want to focus on this specific situation, as there are already multiple active threads on that. The question for this thread is why this type of law seems to never be considered in Congress.

Just using marijuana as an example, there a lots of laws already on the books about it. Some not just specifically about marijuana. What happens to those laws? Are they repealed, replaced, amended? If you dig into the laws passed, a lot of it is referring to other laws and how they are changed. It’s not like you can just go “Obamacare exists now.”

What’s in it for me? I don’t particularly object to legalizing marijuana, but my district sure needs a new court house. I probably don’t have enough time to consider your weed bill because I’m so worried about the citizens in my district having to deal with their stuffy old courthouse.

What’s that? Your bill is now the Legal Weed and a Courthouse for Oak’s District Act of 2020? This is a great moment for America, and I proudly co-sponsor this photo op for my re-election campaign. God Bless Us, and Jesus Loves my party!

Such a law could be passed, but there are a few problems with it. One problem is that it’s imprecise, which will lead to all the weird corner cases being hashed out by courts, which may or may not do what the legislators intended.

Another problem would likely be that it doesn’t allow growing, producing, or processing it, which likely are illegal under existing law. So now you have to add a few more terms to your simple law.

Another problem would likely be that on its face it allows selling a pound of marijuana to a 12-year-old, which most people are likely not in favor of. So probably you want some kind of age limit.

Another problem is that since it doesn’t announce a start date, it introduces a lot of chaos! Probably better to specify a timeline so that local authorities that want to continue to make it illegal or regulate it in some way can have time to meet and do so.

And so on, and so on.

Reality is complicated, and rules that attempt to cover many complicated situations generally have to be complicated too.

Bolding added by me. I’m not sure what you’re asking about. Does Congress pass simple laws? Yes. Here’s a congressional resolution from last month on police brutality. Do you want to talk about a law outlawing marijuana? And in the sentence I bolded, what would a simple law you’re referring to accomplish?

Also, if they passed the law you proposed, would that allow me to sell marijuana by the ton? That may not be desirable, which is why there are subtleties in most laws.

This is a pretty interesting look at the numbers (from 10 years ago). It doesn’t really go deeply into the reasons though:

I think it’s a combination of “the bureaucracy is expanding to cover the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” and everything that gets added to major bills as part of horse trading to get the votes.

There would probably be a legal fight over whether Congress, in enacting such imprecise language, meant merely that federal laws prohibiting the possession/use/sale of marijuana were repealed, or if it was actively preempting state laws that prohibit the same (if Congress can ban marijuana via the commerce clause, it could probably protect it the same way).

Think about it this way. If you put everything into one bill, that means someone who wants to hold up the bill gets to take the blame for holding up everything. This includes the President who has veto power, and Senators who may filibuster.

Another important point is that you can lump together any compromises. That way you don’t have to worry about relying on 300 people’s word that they’ll vote for your bill after you’ve voted for theirs.

And then, of course, you can bury things in large bills.

If you look at the history, the Compromise of 1850 was going to be the first so-called “omnibus” bill. It was the work of Henry Clay, who simply couldn’t get it passed. Congresspeople complained that the bill was too long and not enough of them were willing to compromise on all of the issues. Stephen Douglass picked up the cause and, with the death of the President (and therefore a new President of the Senate), was able to send the acts through Congress. They thought it would be the death of the so-called omnibus bill. How wrong they were.


Here are some recently enacted bills that are pretty short:

  • An Act To require the Secretary of the Treasury to mint coins in commemoration of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, giving women in the United States the right to vote. ( 4 pages )
  • An Act To prohibit certain Federal subsidies from being used to purchase communications equipment or services posing national security risks, to provide for the establish-ment of a reimbursement program for the replacement of communications equip-ment or services posing such risks, and for other purposes. ( 13 pages )
  • An Act To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 66 Grove Court in Elgin, Illinois, as the “Corporal Alex Martinez Memorial Post Office Building” ( 1 page )

So it’s not as if short, single-purpose legislation has gone away. Most bills are not terribly long.

But yeah, big bills are gonsta be big. Budget bills commonly exceed 1000 pages. Large new programs require a complex web of legislation that may cut across financial regulations, establishing new rulemaking authorities, reorganizing various executive branch offices, creating new taxes, repealing a few hundred pages of now-obsolete law, earmarking $645,000 to bail out Lenny’s Saturn dealership, etc.

Another reason why omnibus bills have become more common in the past 30 years is a much higher degree of partisanship. With people fighting tooth-and-nail over everything, sometimes the only way to get anything done is to offer something to everyone in order to get the votes.

I’m really glad you brought this up. Most people seem to have no idea what a bill is. I imagine they think it looks like an amendment to the Constitution. The difference is that those are just a framework to allow or limit the real bills that are built upon them.

Here’s a random page out of the Affordable Care Act:

 (A) In general.--Not later than October 1, 2011, 
            subject to subparagraph (B), the Inspector General shall 
            submit to Congress a report containing the results of 
            the study conducted under paragraph (1), together with 
            recommendations for such legislation and administrative 
            action as the Inspector General determines appropriate.
                (B) Limitation on information contained in report.--
            The report submitted under subparagraph (A) shall not 
            include any information that the Inspector General 
            determines is proprietary or is likely to negatively 
            impact the ability of a PDP sponsor or a State plan 
            under title XIX to negotiate prices for covered part D 
            drugs or covered outpatient drugs, respectively.
        (3) Definitions.--In this section:
                (A) Covered part d drug.--The term ``covered part D 
            drug'' has the meaning given such term in section 1860D-
            2(e) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-
                (B) Covered outpatient drug.--The term ``covered 
            outpatient drug'' has the meaning given such term in 
            section 1927(k) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1396r(k)).
                (C) MA-PD plan.--The term ``MA-PD plan'' has the 
            meaning given such term in section 1860D-41(a)(9) of 
            such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-151(a)(9)).
                (D) Medicare advantage organization.--The term 
            ``Medicare Advantage organization'' has the meaning 
            given such term in section 1859(a)(1) of such Act (42 
            U.S.C. 1395w-28)(a)(1)).
                (E) PDP sponsor.--The term ``PDP sponsor'' has the 
            meaning given such term in section 1860D-41(a)(13) of 
            such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-151(a)(13)).
                (F) Prescription drug plan.--The term ``prescription 
            drug plan'' has the meaning given such term in section 
            1860D-41(a)(14) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w-


(a) In General.--Section 1860D-2(b)(4)(C) of the Social Security Act 

(42 U.S.C. 1395w-102(b)(4)(C)) is amended–
(1) in clause (i), by striking and'' at the end; (2) in clause (ii)-- (A) by striking such costs shall be treated as
incurred only if’’ and inserting subject to clause (iii), such costs shall be treated as incurred only if''; (B) by striking , under section 1860D-14, or under
a State Pharmaceutical Assistance Program’'; and
(C) by striking the period at the end and inserting
; and''; and (3) by inserting after clause (ii) the following new clause: (iii) such costs shall be treated as
incurred and shall not be considered to be
reimbursed under clause (ii) if such costs are
borne or paid–

That’s actually light reading. Many bills have pages and pages of nothing but references to older bills. And definition galore. Every word of importance has to be defined or else the courts go crazy when trying to decide whether or not to allow an application of the bill to go through.

This is one main reason why lawyers have always dominated Congress. Bill writing is not simply policy proposals. It is lawyering at the highest level. Unless you viscerally understand how the text of a bill will be treated by users and courts in the real world, you can do real damage.