Take Your Pick: Complex Laws or Legislating from the Bench

President Obama signed the sweeping financial reform bill on Wednesday, July 21. One of the criticisms by Republicans and other opponents of the bill is its complexity. The bill itself is over 2000 pages long. This was a major complaint about the Health Care reform bill that Obama signed earlier this year.

It is certainly troubling that bills are so long that our elected representatives are not able to read them completely, and certainly not able to understand them fully. In many cases these complex laws are written by staffers in consultation with lobbyists. TIME Magazine recently had an article about how Lobbyists were helping draft the Financial Reform Bill. It was enlightening if not a bit scary. It is available here: http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,2000880,00.html   

Many critics say that things were better back when Congress passed simple laws. Critics noted that the law establishing social security was only a few pages long. But is it really better to pass short and simple laws? The problem is that short and simple is not the same as clear. Short and simple often means broad and vague, and this leaves the law open to a variety of interpretations.

When Congress passes a broad law the matter moves to legislative agencies to create the rules necessary to administer the law. And this means that a second set of laws (make no mistake, Federal Rules are laws) are drafted by unelected government bureaucrats. Is that what we want? That is inherently undemocratic. (It should be noted that there is a detailed administrative rule making process that is supposedly designed to ensure public input on these rules, but the reality is that only interested parties (read lobbyists) get involved at this level.) So a broad law leads to undemocratic rule making by vested interests. Is this better than a detailed and complex law? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.

The second problem with broad laws is that they leave lots of room for judicial interpretation: you know, legislating from the bench. Courts are generally bound by the laws that are enacted by Congress (the exception is when the law violates the Constitution). But where the law does not address a specific issue the Courts (by the long established judicial tradition known as the common law) fill the gaps. The more gaps, the more the courts write the law. And when Courts write the law they are engaged in an undemocratic process that is known as judicial activism or legislating from the bench. So broad laws lead to judicial activism. Is that better or worse than a detailed and complex law?

It is interesting that the people who complain the loudest about the complexity of these laws are also the same people who complain the most about legislating from the bench. It think it points to their naiveté about politics, law, government and the modern world.