Laws that try to cover everything

In a discussion of the struggling Immigration Reform Bill, George Will tells about the Compromise of 1850.  Henry Clay worked it out, but the bill that would implement it–dealing with scores of inter-related issues, such as limiting the spread of slavery, statehood for California, the mode of territorial government for Utah, what to do about fugitive slaves, and on and on–could never get passed.  It was up to Stephen Douglas, better known as Lincoln’s nemesis, to get the legislation through.   He broke the gargantuan bill apart into smaller bills, each of which found its own constituency, and each of which passed.

Mr. Wills says that part of the problem in our paralyzed government is that bills are just too long.  They try to cover everything.  Which is a symptom of a government that thinks it knows everything. [Read more...]

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He goes on to show how outdated laws contribute to the deficit, complicate health care, and hurt business.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


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