In recent times, the fiscal cliff has become a hot topic in the United States, and its resolution was applauded by both parties in Congress. However, upon reading parts of the actual American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, I realized that many of these bills are extremely complex in nature, not due to content, but in the way that content is presented. In particular, these bills consist of "strike this from here" and "add this to there" clauses which makes following the actual logic and flow of American law extremely difficult. Is there a particular reason why these laws are unreadable to the common citizen?

Other examples:

  • Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012
  • Child Protection Act of 2012
    • 8
      This question keeps reminding me of, "We have to pass the bill, so you can find out what is in it." – user1873 Jan 5 '13 at 16:47
    • Because people will always find exceptions. – Affable Geek Jan 5 '13 at 16:49
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      Old people in congress don't know how to use source control – Sam I am Jan 5 '13 at 18:25
    • @SamIam your comment seems to be the best thing I've read this year. – Snakes and Coffee Jan 6 '13 at 19:22
    • 1
      I interpreted it as asking about amendment language, i.e. "strike this from here", and "add this to there". The reason for that is not subjective (hence my answer below). – Steve Melnikoff Jan 7 '13 at 23:45


    As a politician, how much popularity can you get by proposing a new law? How much by adding an exception for your block of voters?

    Compare with: How much popularity would you get for refactoring the existing laws; keeping them more or less the same, just more simple?

    How many examples do you remember of a politician or a political party proposing a new law, or making an exception in the existing law? How many examples of law maintenance do you remember? Popularity is proportional to votes. End of story.

    • 1
      [citation needed] – Steve Melnikoff Jan 7 '13 at 22:39
    • To expand on my earlier comment: I don't dispute that politicians often do things in order to garner more votes. However, this answer does not establish a link between that incentive, and the kind of convoluted texts present in laws. Can you provide sources which prove that the former leads to the latter? – Steve Melnikoff Jan 8 '13 at 14:30
    • This would then be true in any democracy - yet it isn't. – paul23 Sep 1 '18 at 13:23

    When a law is passed, they are typically valid forever. There are obvious exceptions to this, the Bush era tax cuts that were set to expire after 10 years (but were extended until January 1, 2013) are an obvious recent example. However, the vast majority of laws are passed with no horizon and will continue to be in effect forever.

    Over the course of nearly 250 years of laws the sphere of human experience that has not been legislated in some way becomes increasingly small and as a result most modern law primarily changes existing law to comport to a new policy. Tax law is a good example of this. Modern Congresses pass numerous complex tax instruments every year (estate taxes, capital gains taxes, child tax credit, etc.) that would never have been envisioned when the tax system was put in place. However, the system itself has been in place since very near the founding of the country, so the proper way to implement these new policies is to modify that existing law.


    A lot of the time, new legislation is not intended to create new laws, but to make changes to (amend) existing ones.

    This is useful because, when looking at the new legislation, it makes it clear precisely what is being changed. Parts of the old law that are not being changed don't need to be mentioned in the new one, and so don't need to be debated or voted on.

    The downside to this, as the question notes, is that the new legislation is difficult to read, and makes no sense unless you also have access to the law being amended.

    It's not just US legislation that is like this! It's common in British law too. For example, every year, the government changes the taxes on alcoholic drinks. The taxes were created by a law passed in 1979. They only want to change the numbers, nothing else, so section 186 of this year's Finance Act looks like this:

    186 Rates of alcoholic liquor duties
    (1)ALDA 1979 is amended as follows.
    (2)In section 5 (rate of duty on spirits), for “£25.52” substitute “£26.81”.
    (3)In section 36(1AA) (rates of general beer duty)—
       (a)in paragraph (za) (rate of duty on lower strength beer), for “£9.29” substitute “£9.76”, and
       (b)in paragraph (a) (standard rate of duty on beer), for “£18.57” substitute “£19.51”.
    (4)In section 37(4) (rate of high strength beer duty), for “£4.64” substitute “£4.88”.
    (5)In section 62(1A) (rates of duty on cider)—
       (a)in paragraph (a) (rate of duty per hectolitre on sparkling cider of a strength exceeding 5.5 per cent), for “£233.55” substitute “£245.32”,
       (b)in paragraph (b) (rate of duty per hectolitre on cider of a strength exceeding 7.5 per cent which is not sparkling cider), for “£53.84” substitute “£56.55”, and
       (c)in paragraph (c) (rate of duty per hectolitre in any other case), for “£35.87” substitute “£37.68”.

    It doesn't make for exciting reading, but it avoids having to rewrite whole sections of the old law in the new one.


    I encourage you to read Lawrence Lessig's 'Republic Lost'.

    As a general rule, the reason why American laws are so convoluted is because lobbyists write them and pack them with pork. It's a bonafide fact: Most (or perhaps all) members of Congress never actually read the bills in their entirety before they vote on them.

    Exhibit A: The fiscal-cliff bill.

    • 3
      Do you have any research or documentation that backs up this bonafide fact? – SoylentGray Jan 7 '13 at 18:47
    • @Chad: Yes. 'Republic, Lost' is jam-packed with research and inside information. Jack Abramoff's autobiography also chronicles the life of the super-lobbyist. You'll find many anecdotes there as well. // Now could you please retract your downvote? thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/… – Jim G. Jan 7 '13 at 19:37
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      I suggest bringing a quote(or 2) from that document that back up the bodefided fact claim. – SoylentGray Jan 7 '13 at 21:31

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