In a previous article, “What Happened To Our Laws?” I discussed how much American laws had grown in size, complexity, and number. My article wasn’t the first to point out such criticism, nor was I the first to write legislators complaining about it. In 1995, Richard Epstein, wrote a book on the subject presenting a well thought-out thesis on the kinds of changes that need to be made. So I ask, “Why don’t our legislators clean it up?”
The simple answer is that they’ve got no real motivation to do so. That may sound counter-intuitive; after all, what about all those complaints from voters? What about all those John Stossel reports about too many laws… or articles in the Economist? Well it’s true, there has been a lot of talk about it, but ask yourself this: “When was the last time we voted someone out of office because they didn’t repeal enough laws? Or when was the last time we demanded a candidate run on a platform of legal reform?” While I found an online group advocating Legal Reform, I couldn’t find any candidates who ran on a platform of general legal reform. Sure, they might talk about some limited form of tax reform, or reforming some other specific part of our legal code. A few might even talk about simplifying the entire tax code, but when they do, they often get criticized for it. Worse, once elected, fewer actually follow through on those promises.
The problem is there are lots of benefits and reasons to proposing new legislation if you’re a politician. Politicians get media coverage when they propose new a law which helps them get re-elected. Sometimes the laws are named after them (Obamacare or Dodd-Frank or the Sarbanes-Oxley Act), and if that law becomes popular, that too is a motivation. But nobody gets anything named after them for repealing laws. There’s generally very little if any media attention when legislators actually do repeal laws. While we’ve all heard about votes and talk about votes to repeal the PPACA Health Care Act, I bet you didn’t hear anything about a vote to repeal H.R. 705 which removed some of the extra burden of paperwork required on small businesses. My guess is that won’t help Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-CA), who sponsored the repeal, to get re-elected.
So if the problem is that there’s little to be gained by politicians in repealing and reforming our overly complex laws, what can we do? Ironically, our founding fathers wrestled with this same issue in deciding what form our government should take. They understood that all governments would be challenged by human nature itself, ambition, and self interest. Madison’s solution was to pit that very nature against itself, to in effect, put it to work for the good of the people. So maybe that same principle can be applied here. Can we give politicians more incentive to repeal laws by playing on their natural ambition and self interest? I think we can.
On March 20th, Rep Eric Cantor (R-VA), unveiled the Citizen Co-Sponsor Project which allows citizens to log in and directly “co-sponsor” various proposed legislation. If we can co-sponsor new laws, why not a project to allow us to vote on what laws we want repealed? We could call it the Citizen Repeal Co-Sponsor Project. Include with that recognition for those legislators who propose the repeal of some of these overly complex laws. While we’re at it, why not a “Simplicity Award” for legislators who manage to come up with effective laws in as few words as possible? Are there any enterprising web designers out there who want to take a crack at creating such a site? Here’s one more idea: how about just writing an email to major media outlets telling them you want to hear more about what laws the government is repealing or simplifying. While you’re at it, you could write to your representatives and let them know how you feel about the need to repeal and simplify.
To paraphrase Stossel, “Yes We Can” tell them that No They Can’t keep passing all these incomprehensible laws. We don’t want a “post-legal” America where the idea of the rule of (good) laws is viewed as ” . . . the very idea of a nation based on the rule of law, as a reflection of nostalgia for, or sentimentality about, a long-lost republic.” Because it isn’t nostalgia, nor is it impossible or the Republic lost, unless of course we the people fail to get involved.