On Tuesday, President Obama endorsed regulatory reform in The Wall Street Journal, announcing an executive order that “requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth. And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. It’s a review that will help bring order to regulations that have become a patchwork of overlapping rules, the result of tinkering by administrations and legislators of both parties and the influence of special interests in Washington over decades.”
Of course, I’m skeptical. But for the moment, let’s take this at face value. I endorse regulatory reform, Mr. President – but we shouldn’t stop our reform efforts there!
Suggestion #12: Scale back the federal code.
The U.S. Code is pretty overwhelming – there are 50 sections (called “titles”) that deal with everything from the proper use of the federal seal to railroad unemployment insurance, and a lot of other minor things in between, like “public lands” and “war and national defense.” And of course, there are very long bills being passed on a pretty regular basis these days – so there are a whole lot of laws on the books!
Unfortunately, when there are that many laws, it’s really hard to keep track of what’s what – and everyone eventually becomes a criminal. This, in turn, reduces the meaning and weight of those few laws that we, as a society, truly want to enforce.
Last month, author Philip K. Howard offered the following solution to addressing this problem in the Washington Post:
There is one common technique that has been used in successful legal overhauls, from Justinian’s recodification in ancient times to the Napoleonic code that is the basis of modern European civil law to the uniform commercial code adopted in the United States in the 1950s. The technique is this: radical simplification.
Simplification of law has many virtues. It allows legislatures to pass measures of a general nature, setting goals and operating principles without trying to anticipate every regulatory situation. Think of the Constitution or the straightforward recommendations of the deficit commission. The current convention of law-as-instruction-manual suffers the idiocies of central planning, forcing everyone to go through the day with their noses in rule books instead of using their common sense. It also spawns such complexity that overhauling the vast accumulation of law would be hopeless – like trying to prune a jungle.
Simplification offers the only practical way for Congress, or special overhaul commissions it might appoint, to start mucking out the statutory stables. Laws that run several thousand pages should be rewritten in 50 pages or less. Only then will members of Congress actually understand what they’re voting on, and the rest of us understand what’s expected of us.
Please, Congress: simplify our laws so that “members of Congress actually understand what they’re voting on, and the rest of us understand what’s expected of us.” It’s not just the regulations that are crushing us – it’s also the complex web of laws – which are often unevenly enforced – that we can’t keep up with!