Practical Steps to Limiting Government: Required Reading Edition
“If companies that are “too big to fail” are too big to exist, then bills that are “too long to read” are too long to pass. This sort of behavior — passing bills that no one has read — or, that in the case of the healthcare “bill” haven’t even actually been written — represents political corruption of the first order. If representation is the basis on which laws bind the citizen, then why should citizens regard themselves as bound by laws that their representatives haven’t read, or, sometimes, even written yet?”
Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion “stimulus’’ bill in February – the largest spending bill in history – after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Conservatives like to talk about limiting government, but it’s a lot more difficult to do in practice than in theory. It is rather like quitting a bad habit – much more difficult than picking it up (which is a fairly good analogy for growth of government in general). And it’s a lot easier to talk about such limitations when not in power than when the tables turn. The process of limiting government is subject to all sorts of backlash and unintended consequences, and more often than not it is simply a talking point.
Once government has grown, it’s extremely difficult to cut it back – reason enough, in my mind, to keep it as limited as possible from the outset. But I think practical steps can be taken to limit the state, and often as not, these can be done by limiting lawmakers themselves, making the legislative process more transparent, and focusing not simply on the limits but on the process.
I like the “read the bill” movement. I think it would curb Democratic excesses and make Republicans honest. I think that we should go further, though. All bills passed in Congress should be limited to exactly the stated purpose of the bill. If separate laws need to be passed, then they should be passed separately. There is no reason to include non-germane amendments in our legislation ever. Take that option off the table. Why does a tourism bill include E-verify laws? We need to not only require shorter, more accessible bills which our lawmakers are required to read, we need to put a cap on the breadth of laws and regulations and hand-outs that each bill can include.
(I would like to also place a cap on the breadth of subjects that Congressmen could waste their time and our money on in general, but I doubt that will ever happen. Browse some of the laws our national leaders are working on and you start to get a sense of just how tiresome and beside-the-point so much of the federal government really is….
- H.Con.Res. 14 (ih) Supporting the goals and ideals of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week.
- H.Con.Res. 27 (ih) Authorizing the use of the rotunda of the Capitol for a ceremony in honor of the bicentennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln.
- H.R. 2162 (ih) To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 123 11th Avenue South in Nampa, Idaho, as the “Herbert A Littleton Postal Station”
Remember, this is our federal government we’re talking about here….)
But back to the matter at hand.
Along with limiting the number of resolutions contained in a bill, I’d also like to see mandatory grace periods between when a bill is changed and when it can be voted on. No backdoor provisions. No “placeholders” to allow changes to be made after the vote is cast. It’s bad enough that our lawmakers have gone to such great length to ignore half of what they pass into law, but that they allow hypothetical changes to be made after their vote strikes me as near-criminal.
A big part of the reason that the federal government gets away with so much, and grows so big, is that lawmakers and lobbyists know that in order for anything to pass through congress it must first be subjected to a gauntlet of wheelings and dealings. This gives them cover for pet projects. Any piece of legislation can be tacked on to any other. Meaningless laws and regulations ensue. See Waxman-Markey for details.
Legislation that enters one house, comes out the other looking nothing like it did at its inception. Obviously this is necessary to some degree. To make good laws, or passable laws, some compromise will necessarily take place. If we limit the length and scope possible for the passage of any bill, however, we could also limit the transmogrification process to some degree. Add to that mandatory time-limits between changes and votes, mandatory reading of all bills by those who vote on them, and you at least have some semblance of an honest legislative process take shape. And with honest legislation comes limited government.
I would also suggest something along the lines of the CBO to monitor special interests and their impact on each piece of legislation. The CBO does a good job (though not a good enough job) at sobering up over-exuberant lawmakers with more realistic budget numbers. A similar office could examine and publish the effects laws have on industry groups, the relationship between lawmakers and the industries and lobbyists in question, and the possible side-effects of laws (such as regulatory capture). This might have a similarly sobering effect.
Critics will claim that such changes in the legislative process will make government less efficient and too slow. However, we should realize that an efficient government does not pass the sort of legislation that our government passes. An efficient government does not have eyes the size of its stomach. Lawmakers in a functioning system would only attempt to pass necessary legislation, and would not be burdened by the constant addition of new resolutions that have nothing to do with the original intent of the law. And one of the most elegant ways to limit government is to make it function more slowly. The worst excesses we’ve seen in the past ten years have all been the result of a fast-acting, over-reaching congress and an out of control executive. From the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, to TARP, whenever congress acts quickly and boldly they act badly.
Thoughts? Ideas on other practical measures to limit government?