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Comprehensive bills stumble on complex issues

Bob Tippee

The political storm swamping US immigration reform helps explain troubles with energy policy.

The common element is a congressional preference for "comprehensive legislation."

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), which Congress was revisiting even before Democrats won control in 2006, was comprehensive legislation. It covered everything that every favor-seeking lobbyist for every energy form around could imagine.

The bill, however comprehensive, was incomprehensible while in Congress, incomprehensible when passed, and barely comprehensible as law.

Hailed as a triumph of bipartisan compromise, EPACT now prepares for surgery as House and Senate Democrats remove parts they pretend never to have liked. Most are measures that might have boosted production of oil and gas.

The same errant strategy seems to be guiding immigration reform.

It's a difficult problem, with those 12 million illegal residents making a mockery of US law, using public services they don't pay for, some maybe plotting terrorist attacks, and—things are never simple—doing jobs that few legal citizens want.

So a Republican administration and Democratic legislature wrestled into being a reform package that, like EPACT on energy, tried to do everything at once on immigration.

Surprise! The compromises and deal-making that went into creation of the bill were nearly impossible to follow. Surprise! Hardly anyone liked the final product.

Whatever happened to simple problem-solving?

Everyone agrees that border control needs work. Why can't Congress deal with that problem by itself?

Issues like treatment of the existing crowd of illegal residents, guest-worker programs, and admission preferences are trickier. Why not address them separately? Solutions would be better. Just as important, the compromises and deal-making would be easier to see.

It's no mystery why politicians favor comprehensive legislation over targeted solutions to specific problems. Big bills make big news.

When they go wrong, however, big bills make big problems. Legislation that tries to do everything at once can be hard to get right.

EPACT got too much wrong on energy: mainly too much market regulation and too little economic supply.

As with immigration, EPACT's difficulties started with law-making that tried to manage multiple issues needing focused attention in one historic package.

(Online June 15, 2007; author's e-mail:

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