Are bills getting longer?

In my last post on congressional productivity I wrote that so far in the 113th Congress (2013-2014) the fewest number of bills have been enacted than in any corresponding time period in recent history, but the number of pages in those bills isn’t the lowest.

Tobi asked in the comments:

Does “the number of pages of new law is not the lowest” suggest that bills are tending to get bigger? What’s the trend in average bill length?

There are 2,371 pages or 1,753,168 words in 107 new statutes so far this Congress.* The lowest was 2,313 pages or 1,525,952 words in the corresponding time period of 106th Congress (1999-2000) when 217 bills were enacted.

That’s 22 pages or 16,385 words per statute in this Congress, compared to 11 pages or 7,032 words per statute in the 106th Congress. Is there a trend? If anything, the trend is the other way around. Are two charts showing the length of bills over time:

Bill Length over Time

We’ll want to be careful about this in a few ways. First, the way bills are formatted on the page has changed a bit so we’ll look at word counts and not page counts. Also since bill lengths aren’t distributed like a bell curve, it’ll be better to look at percentiles than averages. So the top chart shows the median bill, and the bottom chart shows the 90th percentile — i.e. the longest 10% of bills.**

The length of bills, overall, hasn’t changed much since 1993 and remains about 1,100 words.  But the longest bills, as well as enacted bills, have been getting a little shorter.

The 106th Congress, which is marked on the charts, and the current Congress happened to be extremes. The 106th Congress’s longest bills were short, and the current Congress’s longest bills are very long. What looked like it might have been a trend turns out to be a fluke.

* That’s slightly more than when I last wrote. I forgot to take into account that there’s a delay in reporting from Congress. This should more accurately reflect activity in the first 506 days of the Congress.

** Other notes: In these charts I’m including all bills, not just activity in the first 506 days of the Congress, and activity to-date in the current Congress. Comprehensive digital information on bill text is available from Congress only starting in 1993. Bills change during their life cycle: we’re looking at the most recent version of each bill. The years listed above are the “legislative year” in which a bill was introduced, which may differ from a calendar year and the date on which a bill was enacted.

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