Belmont Club

Rubik cubed

Imagine debugging a million lines of code. How would you do it? The problem is a harder than simply finding the time. My old textbook reference suggests using the strategy of “test sets”. Put data in and check to see it is processed correctly. Sounds good, but the problem with this approach is that most programs have infinite sets of legal inputs, and therefore infinite numbers of test sets, any one of which might show up a bug. Another tack would be to prove that a program’s steps were mathematically correct. The practical difficulties of trying this on a million line code base are easy to imagine. But we’re not out of moves yet. One thing we can try is to prove the correctness of the program by parts; in effect showing that certain blocks will always be produce a true result given a legal input. Why am I talking about debugging million line programs? Because someone is so sick of incomprehensible, pork-laden legislation with all kinds of scams embedded in it that he has proposed a 28th Amendment. Bob Gale writes:


Earlier this year, Congress passed a “Stimulus” Bill. It was 973 pages long. This past Friday, the House passed a “Climate Change” Bill. It was more than 1200 pages long. … This got me wondering: how long, exactly, is our Constitution? How many pages did it take our country’s founders to lay out the structure and functions of our Federal Government? … Think about that. The entire foundation of our country – the complete design for our entire government — is clearly explained in only 11 pages.

No single Amendment is a full page. Many are only a single sentence.

Yet the bill that was passed on June 26, 2009 by 219 of our elected representatives — people to whom we’ve entrusted our Constitution, men and women who have sworn an oath to uphold it – was more than 1200 pages long. That’s over 100 times longer than the U.S. Constitution! And not one member of Congress, NOT ONE, read the whole thing! A word comes to my mind to describe this: “INSANE.” I cannot believe that this type of legislation and legislative behavior is what the signers of our Constitution intended when they invented Congress.

Therefore, I am respectfully proposing a 28th Amendment to our Constitution. I call it the Brevity Act.

No law, bill, resolution or any act of Congress shall exceed 2000 words, including all footnotes, amendments and signatures. Congress shall not vote on any item longer than that. Each item requiring a vote shall be read aloud in its entirety in session to a majority of members. Those not in attendance may not vote on the item.


Now you see where this is going. Let me rephrase the original problem: how do you debug a 1,200 page “Climate Change Bill”? How do you find out whether a billion dollar ripoff is concealed deep in the bowels of this monster before it is enacted? The first step is understanding what it says. The intent of the hypothetical 28th Amendment is to make legislation short and readable. But a 2,000 word limit? Surely you jest. Well, maybe not. The payoff of breaking Hope and Change down into 2,000 word chunks is that we get to try the strategy of enforcing correctness by parts. That means of course, that big legislative agendas have to be modular. But why not? Most everything that works in the world we live in can be built on a modular basis. Why not laws?

Unfortunately, this will place a greater burden on the system architects. The system of jurisprudence and both Houses of Congress have got to conceive of legislation in a way that avoids spaghetti structures; they must craft laws with standard interfaces and all the attributes good information objects possess. This allows everyone, including the Legislators, to see what things do. They can’t be these present-day word blobs that lie there like a cereal bowlful of scrambled letters. Or can they? Opacity has its advantages. It’s in the interest of the lawyers, lobbyists and legislators to keep things as impenetrable as possible so that they and they alone can navigate through the murky swamp. It enforces public dependence on them as guides for starters. In the video below Carol Browner, the Administration’s Energy Czar can only claim to have read “vast chunks” of the legislation that her department hopes to implement. Don’t be outraged: the text is probably bumping up against the limit of human comprehensibility. And soon, perhaps to the delight of all good insiders, legislation may approach such a degree complexity that it may become impossible, even in principle, for any individual to understand what it says.  A cynic might say that this is a feature, not a bug. It depends on your point of view. But maybe Bob Gale’s idea is one whose time will eventually come. Anyway it’s better to try and to lose to Washington than never to try at all.


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