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Can a Statute Be Unconstitutionally Verbose?

In recent years, conservatives have frequently complained about the length of controversial legislation, whether the federal budget, the Affordable Care Act, or the proposed immigration reform bill.   Kevin Drum asks why size suddenly matters for conservatives: “But the real question is why this has become such a favorite gripe from the tea party set. I mean, who cares how long a bill is? If you don’t like immigration reform, you don’t like immigration reform. You still wouldn’t like it if the bill were 20 pages long instead of 1,200.”

Without commenting on the propriety of any particular bill, I think there may be a relevant constitutional prohibition. Article I, section 7 provides that before a bill becomes a law, it must first be presented to the President.  The President then has two, and only two,  options: “If he shall approve it he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections….”  (The section does prescribe the result where the President fails timely to pursue one of those two options.  But such presidential inaction is not expressly permitted.).

The only lawful options for the President, then, are approval and signature, or non-approval (as distinct from disapproval) and return.   He must sign if he approves, but he must return the bill if he does not approve.  Presidential approbation, then, is both a sufficient and necessary condition for presidential signature of a presented bill.

What is this required approval?  Approval would seem to require knowledge.  After all, the verb approve comes from the Latin ad+probare, meaning to test or try out.  If approbation requires knowledge, then the President cannot lawfully sign any bill he cannot understand.  And at some point, a proposed law can be so large that no President, regardless of intelligence, can honestly say that he approves it.

Where the President cannot understand, and thus cannot approve, a proposed bill, the Constitution directs him to send it back to Congress with at least one “objection”: This bill is too long.

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