Laws that expire

Philip K. Howard argues that many of our national problems are the result of too many laws, which go back for generations and that gum up our ability to respond to current conditions.  He argues that we need a “sunset provision” that makes all laws expire eventually, requiring that the legislature periodically revisit them:

Once a law is in place in the United States, it’s almost impossible to dislodge. Our political class assumes that, after a law is forged in the crucible of democracy, it should be honored as if it’s one of the Ten Commandments – except it’s more like one of 10 million.

We even have a hard time modifying laws that were explicitly designed to be temporary. Just look at the current battle over the Bush-era tax cuts.

Having that debate at all is unusual. Once enacted, most laws are ignored for generations, allowed to take on a life of their own without meaningful review. Decade after decade, they pile up like sediment in a harbor, bogging the country down – in dense regulation, unaffordable health care, and higher taxes and public debt.

A healthy democracy must make fresh choices. This requires not mindless deregulation but continual adjustment of laws. Congress could take on this responsibility if it followed a simple proposal: Every law should automatically expire after 10 or 15 years. Such a universal sunset provision would force Congress and the president to justify the status quo and give political reformers an opening to reexamine trade-offs and public priorities.

via To cut the deficit, get rid of our surplus of laws.

He goes on to show how outdated laws contribute to the deficit, complicate health care, and hurt business.

The idea seems to have merit, and yet what legislature would have time to reconsider the whole record of national legislation every ten years or so?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • TES

    If every law had an automatic review at the ten year point, it may serve to keep our legislators busy enough reviewing old laws that it would keep them from writing new ones – wishful thinking, I guess.

  • TES

    If every law had an automatic review at the ten year point, it may serve to keep our legislators busy enough reviewing old laws that it would keep them from writing new ones – wishful thinking, I guess.

  • http://www.ifyoucouldreadmymind.wordpress.com Lisa R.

    TES, you took the words right out of my mouth, er, off my keyboard, that is! I’ve long held the opinion that our legislators have way too much time on their hands and think they’re being fruitful by enacting law after law upon law. Filling their time for them by having them review old legislature would be brilliant upon brilliant. Sort of like keeping a hyperactive toddler out of trouble.

  • http://www.ifyoucouldreadmymind.wordpress.com Lisa R.

    TES, you took the words right out of my mouth, er, off my keyboard, that is! I’ve long held the opinion that our legislators have way too much time on their hands and think they’re being fruitful by enacting law after law upon law. Filling their time for them by having them review old legislature would be brilliant upon brilliant. Sort of like keeping a hyperactive toddler out of trouble.

  • SKPeterson

    It would also restrict the gargantuan omnibus bills that wind their way through the halls of Congress. If you have to revisit them, you’re likely to make the bills simpler and easier to read, understand and digest – another boon to the public fisc.

  • SKPeterson

    It would also restrict the gargantuan omnibus bills that wind their way through the halls of Congress. If you have to revisit them, you’re likely to make the bills simpler and easier to read, understand and digest – another boon to the public fisc.

  • Random Lutheran

    I would agree with SK, and ask for more: make it so that no bill may address more than one topic (roads + medicare would be right out, for example), and each expenditure must be voted on individually. What I would really like to see would be for the number of laws to be capped, and, should that number be filled, an older law must be jettisoned if a new one is going to be put in place (this combined with the above provision). It would also be nice if there would be a way to prevent bills written by special interest groups from being introduced as if the legislator introducing them had written them.

  • Random Lutheran

    I would agree with SK, and ask for more: make it so that no bill may address more than one topic (roads + medicare would be right out, for example), and each expenditure must be voted on individually. What I would really like to see would be for the number of laws to be capped, and, should that number be filled, an older law must be jettisoned if a new one is going to be put in place (this combined with the above provision). It would also be nice if there would be a way to prevent bills written by special interest groups from being introduced as if the legislator introducing them had written them.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I like the idea of having a periodic review of the legal code. We have already noted how many of our laws are passed in the heat of the moment and have some nasty unintended consequences. So, why not have a review to make sure they were actually a good idea or even a good law? Besides if it does have effect that bills are simpler maybe the congress critters might actually read the bill before voting on it.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I like the idea of having a periodic review of the legal code. We have already noted how many of our laws are passed in the heat of the moment and have some nasty unintended consequences. So, why not have a review to make sure they were actually a good idea or even a good law? Besides if it does have effect that bills are simpler maybe the congress critters might actually read the bill before voting on it.

  • S Bauer

    I’m all for it, if for no other reason than that given by TES. Hmmmm, although we should have to pass a new law mandating that all laws have a Sunset provision. The only problem would be trying to decide whether this new law would have to have a Sunset as well.

  • S Bauer

    I’m all for it, if for no other reason than that given by TES. Hmmmm, although we should have to pass a new law mandating that all laws have a Sunset provision. The only problem would be trying to decide whether this new law would have to have a Sunset as well.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    The down side of laws expiring–say like the 2001 tax cut package–is that it introduces a large amount of uncertainty into governance, which is rarely if ever good.

    Instead of laws expiring after a set period of time, what about actually asking Congress to read and understand the impacts of the laws they’re passing?

    As if THAT will ever happen! :^)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    The down side of laws expiring–say like the 2001 tax cut package–is that it introduces a large amount of uncertainty into governance, which is rarely if ever good.

    Instead of laws expiring after a set period of time, what about actually asking Congress to read and understand the impacts of the laws they’re passing?

    As if THAT will ever happen! :^)

  • DonS

    I believe sunset provisions are an outstanding thing. But they should apply not only to laws, but, more importantly, to government agencies. Every agency should periodically have to justify its existence and be re-authorized, if warranted. Together with re-authorization, its mission, mandates, and staffing should be adjusted as necessary to make sure that it is best serving the citizens, rather than its employees.

  • DonS

    I believe sunset provisions are an outstanding thing. But they should apply not only to laws, but, more importantly, to government agencies. Every agency should periodically have to justify its existence and be re-authorized, if warranted. Together with re-authorization, its mission, mandates, and staffing should be adjusted as necessary to make sure that it is best serving the citizens, rather than its employees.

  • TES

    from Don S, “Every agency should periodically have to justify its existence…” – It seems that we have come full circle in a sense in our thread. Government and all bureaucracies eventually do this. They end up exerting so much time, energy, and dollars to prove why they are needed. They (we) are always seeking to add one more program or service that makes them (us) essential. In our efforts to reduce the damage done by government, we give them an excuse to wreck more havoc. Here is where checks and balances must be in place. Government is necessary, but not a runaway government. I guess the question I would ask, “Are we in the runaway stage?” I know my answer, what about yours?

  • TES

    from Don S, “Every agency should periodically have to justify its existence…” – It seems that we have come full circle in a sense in our thread. Government and all bureaucracies eventually do this. They end up exerting so much time, energy, and dollars to prove why they are needed. They (we) are always seeking to add one more program or service that makes them (us) essential. In our efforts to reduce the damage done by government, we give them an excuse to wreck more havoc. Here is where checks and balances must be in place. Government is necessary, but not a runaway government. I guess the question I would ask, “Are we in the runaway stage?” I know my answer, what about yours?

  • helen

    Instead of laws expiring after a set period of time, what about actually asking Congress to read and understand the impacts of the laws they’re passing?
    As if THAT will ever happen! :^)

    IF every Congressman had to read every law passed, the laws would be shorter, clearer and there would be fewer of them.
    IF in addition, they were prominently posted so everyone could read, we’d know who was serving the country, and who was serving his own interests.

  • helen

    Instead of laws expiring after a set period of time, what about actually asking Congress to read and understand the impacts of the laws they’re passing?
    As if THAT will ever happen! :^)

    IF every Congressman had to read every law passed, the laws would be shorter, clearer and there would be fewer of them.
    IF in addition, they were prominently posted so everyone could read, we’d know who was serving the country, and who was serving his own interests.

  • DonS

    TES @ 9: I think, philosophically, we agree. We both want limited and much smaller government than we have today. So, I think perhaps I wasn’t so clear in my original post, as you seem to have misunderstood my point.

    What I meant to say was that public agencies should sunset periodically. This would force Congress to re-visit the entire purpose and mission of that agency and specifically re-authorize it if such was warranted. This would be a real version of the “zero-based budgeting” gimmick Jimmy Carter proposed in the late 70′s, and is a lot different than the self-justifying PR agencies regularly do to gain more funding or to expand their power. Another advantage would be that Congress would be forced to go back and review the basic functions of government, rather than spending all of their time thinking of ways to expand it.

    No doubt, certain agencies would have to be exempted from this sunset law, namely, those agencies responsible for functions which are constitutionally required. These would include Department of the Judiciary, Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of the Treasury, for example. However, many of the sub-agencies within those departments could be sunsetted, certainly.

  • DonS

    TES @ 9: I think, philosophically, we agree. We both want limited and much smaller government than we have today. So, I think perhaps I wasn’t so clear in my original post, as you seem to have misunderstood my point.

    What I meant to say was that public agencies should sunset periodically. This would force Congress to re-visit the entire purpose and mission of that agency and specifically re-authorize it if such was warranted. This would be a real version of the “zero-based budgeting” gimmick Jimmy Carter proposed in the late 70′s, and is a lot different than the self-justifying PR agencies regularly do to gain more funding or to expand their power. Another advantage would be that Congress would be forced to go back and review the basic functions of government, rather than spending all of their time thinking of ways to expand it.

    No doubt, certain agencies would have to be exempted from this sunset law, namely, those agencies responsible for functions which are constitutionally required. These would include Department of the Judiciary, Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of the Treasury, for example. However, many of the sub-agencies within those departments could be sunsetted, certainly.

  • SKPeterson

    DonS – since most agencies of the government are/were brought about by legislation, conceivably under a sunset provision the laws creating, extending, or supporting such agencies would expire, and those agencies would then expire along with them. The side benefit would be far fewer agencies, and those agencies that do survive to concentrate on only a few things. Fewer laws, fewer regulations, and more consistency.

  • SKPeterson

    DonS – since most agencies of the government are/were brought about by legislation, conceivably under a sunset provision the laws creating, extending, or supporting such agencies would expire, and those agencies would then expire along with them. The side benefit would be far fewer agencies, and those agencies that do survive to concentrate on only a few things. Fewer laws, fewer regulations, and more consistency.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think we should subject the Constitution to this excellent idea, as well. If it’s really such a great document, surely We the People will approve it, again. If not, no loss.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think we should subject the Constitution to this excellent idea, as well. If it’s really such a great document, surely We the People will approve it, again. If not, no loss.

  • SKPeterson

    @tODD – It’s not like we really pay any attention to it now anyway.

  • SKPeterson

    @tODD – It’s not like we really pay any attention to it now anyway.

  • DonS

    SKP — Unfortunately, while you are right about new agencies, the existing agencies are already established, without sunset provisions. So we would need to pass special laws sunsetting these agencies to get the ball rolling.

  • DonS

    SKP — Unfortunately, while you are right about new agencies, the existing agencies are already established, without sunset provisions. So we would need to pass special laws sunsetting these agencies to get the ball rolling.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD–actually, half the point of the Constitution is to be the point of reference that reminds us where we ought to be–a bulwark against the passions of the people. It does not seem that the Founders were confident that we could get along without putting some things “down in stone.”

    Or, if you’re in the “evolving document” camp, Jell-O. :^)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    tODD–actually, half the point of the Constitution is to be the point of reference that reminds us where we ought to be–a bulwark against the passions of the people. It does not seem that the Founders were confident that we could get along without putting some things “down in stone.”

    Or, if you’re in the “evolving document” camp, Jell-O. :^)


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