You know, you get the most interesting ideas in the oddest places. I once read a sci-fi novel that described the workings of an alien government. Their legislature was tricameral (three houses), and the job of the third House was to simply repeal existing laws. I suspect this was at least partly inspired by the comedy standard of citing obsolete laws that are still on the books in a lot of places (cars cannot go through town without a pedestrian proceding it waving a red flag, no bowling on Sundays, no tying an elephant to a parking meter, etc. etc.), and while I think it’s a bit too much, it did get me thinking about another idea.
One of the bigger political issues of the last election and the current one are the so-called Bush tax cuts that were enacted in the early days of his administration. They were passed with a finite life, and they are set to expire soon. The Republican argument is “they were good, and we should keep them;” the Democrats say “let them expire.”
(This brings up an interesting point: the Democrats argue that this won’t constitute a tax hike, but a simple return to the “natural” level of taxation from the “unnatural” level under the Bush plan. I tend to think that argument is a load of horse crap; if the government takes more of a percentage of my money than in a previous year, that’s a hike, no matter what you call it — a “redefinition” of tax brackets, an “expiration” of a lower percentage, an “adjustment” for inflation, or whatever you call it. But I digress.)
This got me thinking: why not put expiration dates on more laws? In fact, why not put a “sunset provision” on most laws?
Here’s how I’d do it: a Constitutional amendment that says all laws passed by Congress will expire in seven years, unless it is passed with a sunset exemption. Such exemptions would require a separate vote, and pass each House with a 75% supermajority. And renewing an existing law would require at least a 60% supermajority. (Feel free to quibble with the specific numbers; I largely picked them out of the air.)
Under this system, most laws would be indeed, temporary, forcing Congress to reconsider them and look at the consequences of their actions on a fairly regular basis. For truly important matters, such as laws governing murder and other major issues, they could put them out of the reach of the sunsetting provisions (meaning it would take a whole new act to amend or repeal them), if they can convince enough of their members to do so.
This would have the added, hidden benefit of giving Congress a whole new job that might just keep them too busy to stick their noses in so many matters that they now obsess over and try to “fix.”
(I can see it happening now: “Congressman, we’d like a half an hour of your time to talk about giving my client a hefty tax loophole.” “No time, Mr. Lobbyist. If we don’t act right now, the income tax rate will default to zero percent next year!”)
Here in New Hampshire, we pay our legislators $100 per year for their services. I’m not quite sure if it was the intention, but one of the effects of that is we simply don’t have enough “professional” legislators to bring about a truly “professional” legislature — meaning we are spared the burden of so many states (and the nation as a whole) of lawmakers having the time and interest to “justify” their jobs by writing and passing new laws. I don’t think we can make that work on a national level, but the idea is the same — keep the people we elect too busy to pass a bunch of laws that they can point to and say “see how much work I do for you?”
The libertarians have a favorite quote: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” When you combine that with the aphorism that “idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” it’s easy to see what can happen if you don’t give Congress enough to do. The federal calendar is stuffed full of days honoring everything under the sun, every state has a long list of official state songs, birds, reptiles, insects, desserts, sandwiches, beverages, nicknames, and whatnot — it’s absurd.
Let’s give them something substantial to do. Something to keep them out of trouble, and out of our hair — unless we really need them to meddle.