I’ve been saying this for years

Credit cards have expiration dates. Laws should too.

When I first started watching TN House Subcommittee meetings, I saw something that has stuck with me: A legislator brought in a bill to remove the prohibition on aquariums in barber shops. Everyone in the room was baffled as to why this was a law in the first place. Over the years I have assumed that there was a health scare whenever that law was enacted, but I haven’t taken the time to really track it down.

Of course, just repealing something without knowing why it was law in the first place is such a bad idea that there’s a name for it: Chesterton’s Fence

The Boston Globe author says we should have a mandatory 12-15 year sunset but even then I think it’s been too long. I think two years would be sufficient to see the effects of any proposal, yet not be far enough in the past for no one to remember why the law was there in the first place. Two years is also convenient from a political standpoint because that’s the rotation of Congress.

If a law is passed along party lines that is so egregious that the voting public severely punishes the ruling party (Obamacare, anyone?), then literally all the new majority has to do is nothing and it goes away.

I’d also like to see a provision where no new business can be conducted until a vote on existing laws has taken place, and no votes on anything can occur until the Speaker of the House has read, verbatim, with no breaks and no surrogates, the law about to be voted on.

Things like murder, rape, and robbery would continue to be illegal. Things like selling orchids without all the proper paperwork would not. In fact, the paperwork would be gone, too.

What say you? How would you improve the system?

8 comments to I’ve been saying this for years

  • In addition to what you’ve said here, I would add:

    – Require a simple majority to pass a law, but a 3/5 majority to renew it. (If it has been both effective and beneficial, 60% approval shouldn’t be a big problem.)

    – Term limits to all elected offices. Preferably, cumulative lifetime limits.

    – A ban on laws that exempt government officials from any law, except where there is a showing of necessity, and then only with a 3/4 majority of both houses. Renewal of these laws would also require a 3/4 majority. (Again, if it’s truly necessary, there shouldn’t be a problem getting the 3/4 majority. If the exemption is abused, getting the 1/4 minority needed for repeal should be pretty easy.)

    Mens rea is required for all crimes by default. Criminal statutes utilizing strict liability will require a 3/4 majority of both houses to pass and for renewal.

    – Bills must address one and only one topic. Any omnibus bill passed is automatically null and void in its entirety.

    – The states can repeal a federal law if a simple majority of the state legislatures pass a bill repealing the specific law in question. (The difficulty in coordinating this should mean it can only be used effectively in extreme situations where the 2 year expiration is insufficient.)

    That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.

  • HSR47

    1: I believe that re-authorization should start in the appropriate committees: This means that there are multiple stages where pruning may occur: if it doesn’t get through the committee, it dies there.

    2: I like the idea of new bills needing re-authorization on a more frequent basis; That makes it easy to get rid of them on a relatively speedy basis. After awhile though, it becomes an increasing burden. Perhaps the sunset requirement should allow the re-authorization period to grow after a law has been reauthorized 5-10 times: It’s not like we’re ever going to legalize murder, so there’s no real reason to have to re-authorize it every two years from now until the end of time. Therefore, the sunset requirement could allow the sunset period to grow by 1 year per 5 extension votes (5 @ 2 year, 5 @ 3 year, 5 @ 4 year, etc.).

    3: It would need to be retroactive, but applying an immediate 2-year timetable to EVERYTHING on the books currently would be impractical; Perhaps we should require that all laws currently on the books come up for a sunset vote within 10 years of the enactment of the sunset amendment.

    4: I agree that term limits go hand in hand with a sunset clause requirement.

    5: “Bills must address one and only one topic. Any omnibus bill passed is automatically null and void in its entirety.”

    I agree wholeheartedly, and I would go on to suggest that we add in guidelines for the length and readability of statutes: Laws should be short, simple, and to the point such that they may be understood (and therefore followed) by common men.

    6: “The states can repeal a federal law if a simple majority of the state legislatures pass a bill repealing the specific law in question. (The difficulty in coordinating this should mean it can only be used effectively in extreme situations where the 2 year expiration is insufficient.)”

    This is a neat idea, but I think a simpler way to go about it would be to allow the states to veto a bill, just as the president can: Between the date the president signs a bill into law, and the effective date of that law, if enough of the state legislatures vote to veto a bill, then it simply never goes into effect and completely drops off the books.

    Perhaps we could expand on this, and allow the state legislatures to exercise this same power to over-ride the re-authorization votes from the federal legislature. (Read: if the federal legislature re-authorizes a law, the states can over-ride the federal legislature and force the law to expire)

    6: “Bills must address one and only one topic. Any omnibus bill passed is automatically null and void in its entirety.”

    Agreed; Bills MUST be limited in both size and scope. This really goes back to what I was saying in #5: statutes should be short and simple, such that a reasonable man can understand what the legislature means, and therefore can reasonably be expected to comply with the laws on the books.

    7: “Mens rea is required for all crimes by default. Criminal statutes utilizing strict liability will require a 3/4 majority of both houses to pass and for renewal.”

    Generally speaking, I don’t believe that we should EVER define anything to be a crime in the absence of mens rea. I’m not sure this is really the best place for this particular debate, but suffice it to say that it’s a really slippery slope towards the kind of tyranny we have now: First they sought to do away with the concept of mens rea, and then they created so many criminal statutes that no reasonable person could be expected to know or understand them all, which in turn makes it virutally impossible to always be in compliance with the law whilst living as a functional member of society.

    8: “I’d also like to see a provision where no new business can be conducted until a vote on existing laws has taken place, and no votes on anything can occur until the Speaker of the House has read, verbatim, with no breaks and no surrogates, the law about to be voted on.”

    This may or may not be a good idea, depending on what the goal is. I can certainly agree that it is generally a good idea to tie the hands of a legislature such that they have a limited amount of time to spend on new business, but there may well be better ways to do it.

  • HSR47

    9: “A ban on laws that exempt government officials from any law, except where there is a showing of necessity, and then only with a 3/4 majority of both houses. Renewal of these laws would also require a 3/4 majority. (Again, if it’s truly necessary, there shouldn’t be a problem getting the 3/4 majority. If the exemption is abused, getting the 1/4 minority needed for repeal should be pretty easy.)”

    Perhaps any such action should require authorization from both the state legislatures, and the people themselves. Furthermore, I’d say that we should require at least an 80% majority for such a measure to pass…

  • “Perhaps any such action should require authorization from both the state legislatures, and the people themselves. Furthermore, I’d say that we should require at least an 80% majority for such a measure to pass…”

    I was originally tempted to say 90%, so I can’t say I really disagree with you. But I decided that there really could be times where it would be necessary, and I wanted to avoid a repeat of the Articles of Confederation, so I figured the traditional 3/4 majority plus the ease of blocking renewal if it was abused was a good compromise.

    “This is a neat idea, but I think a simpler way to go about it would be to allow the states to veto a bill, just as the president can: Between the date the president signs a bill into law, and the effective date of that law, if enough of the state legislatures vote to veto a bill, then it simply never goes into effect and completely drops off the books.”

    My thought was for something that could be used any time between enactment and renewal – basically an emergency measure for the states if unexpected side effects of a law turn out to be too bad to wait, or if the feds get out of control again. Plus, if your suggestion of progressively lengthening renewal periods were in effect, it would be even more important to have some way to kill a law between renewals, in case of sudden changes (new technology, etc.).

    “3: It would need to be retroactive, but applying an immediate 2-year timetable to EVERYTHING on the books currently would be impractical; Perhaps we should require that all laws currently on the books come up for a sunset vote within 10 years of the enactment of the sunset amendment.”

    I would add a requirement that, over that 10 years, 10% of the laws in existence at the time the timetable was enacted must be voted on each year. Maybe allow that “overages” could carry over, so that if one year 11% were voted on, the next year only 9% would be required.

    Also, if the minimum is not met for any year, all sitting legislators would be fined a percentage of their salary equal to 10x the shortfall (i.e., if they only vote on 5%, their salary is docked 50%). It won’t get done without penalties, especially towards the end when only the most politically risky laws are left.

  • After a bit of thought, I would also add to my original list:

    – No more “regulations”. Only laws passed by Congress would be valid.

    While the reasoning behind the idea of agencies creating regulations within a framework established by Congress may seem valid and necessary on its surface, it has been systematically proven to be just too easily abused. Let a Congress responsible to the people deal with the details, rather than an unelected bureaucracy.

  • HSR47

    I was originally tempted to say 90%, so I can’t say I really disagree with you. But I decided that there really could be times where it would be necessary, and I wanted to avoid a repeat of the Articles of Confederation, so I figured the traditional 3/4 majority plus the ease of blocking renewal if it was abused was a good compromise.

    Actually, I think I’d just opt to strictly prohibit such actions…

    Allowing legislators to exempt themselves from the laws they help create elevates them above the common man in a way that I believe the founders would have objected to.

    “My thought was for something that could be used any time between enactment and renewal – basically an emergency measure for the states if unexpected side effects of a law turn out to be too bad to wait, or if the feds get out of control again. Plus, if your suggestion of progressively lengthening renewal periods were in effect, it would be even more important to have some way to kill a law between renewals, in case of sudden changes (new technology, etc.).”

    Perhaps a better way to do it would be to require that state legislatures vote to *approve* bills (probably a straight up/down vote) from the federal legislature before they can even go to the president, in addition to separate clauses granting the states (when enough of them work together) the ability to repeal federal laws.

    The current system was designed to erect as many roadblocks as it was practical to erect while not totally preventing action; It seems to me that the advances of technology have eased the burden on congress to the point where more impediments are required.

    “I would add a requirement that, over that 10 years, 10% of the laws in existence at the time the timetable was enacted must be voted on each year. Maybe allow that “overages” could carry over, so that if one year 11% were voted on, the next year only 9% would be required.

    Also, if the minimum is not met for any year, all sitting legislators would be fined a percentage of their salary equal to 10x the shortfall (i.e., if they only vote on 5%, their salary is docked 50%). It won’t get done without penalties, especially towards the end when only the most politically risky laws are left.”

    IMO, the best way to do it is to find some way of dividing up the statutes on the books, specifically state which chapters and/or sub-chapters are to be handled in which years, with the stipulation that no new business may be discussed before the old business is concluded: Should new business be brought up, everything not yet voted on will thereby automatically sunset.

    With this, there is no real need for them to actually vote on everything, and thus no need to punish them for not getting to everything. The whole point is to cause laws to sunset; Any statute that doesn’t see action would automatically sunset. Thus, them not getting to everything wouldn’t really be that bad….

    “No more “regulations”. Only laws passed by Congress would be valid.

    I certainly understand where you’re going with this: Federal agencies have been getting increasingly brazen in their disrespect for The Constitution….

    That being said, I’m not sure leaving all regulation to congress is the best move either. Perhaps the answer is to allow agencies to *propose* regulations, but require ratification of those regulations from federal and/or state legislators.

    The idea behind many alphabet soup agencies is for Congress to assign regulatory duty to subject-matter experts; To an extent that *is* actually a valid concept, but it certainly has been taken too far.

  • “Allowing legislators to exempt themselves from the laws they help create elevates them above the common man in a way that I believe the founders would have objected to.”>

    I was thinking all government officials, not just legislators. So, for example, laws allowing police to exceed the speed limit and go through red lights when responding to emergencies. Basically, any time a government employee would need to do something that would ordinarily be illegal in order to do their job effectively. Those situations should be very rare, but I don’t doubt that they can legitimately exist. With term limits and mandatory sunset provisions, they should be easy to get rid of if they’re abused.

    “Perhaps a better way to do it would be to require that state legislatures vote to *approve* bills (probably a straight up/down vote) from the federal legislature before they can even go to the president, in addition to separate clauses granting the states (when enough of them work together) the ability to repeal federal laws.”

    As an alternative, maybe give the selection of senators back to the state legislatures? That would restore the state governments’ voices back into the legislative process without making it too cumbersome. (i.e., given the number of states that sued over Obamacare, it probably never would have passed if the senators had to answer to their state governments.)

    “IMO, the best way to do it is to find some way of dividing up the statutes on the books, specifically state which chapters and/or sub-chapters are to be handled in which years, with the stipulation that no new business may be discussed before the old business is concluded: Should new business be brought up, everything not yet voted on will thereby automatically sunset.”

    That’s a better idea.

    “That being said, I’m not sure leaving all regulation to congress is the best move either. Perhaps the answer is to allow agencies to *propose* regulations, but require ratification of those regulations from federal and/or state legislators.”

    I’m not sure about leaving congress in charge of it either. Unfortunately, I can see what you suggest easily developing into congress merely rubber-stamping agencies’ proposed regulations, with only the ones that cause enough of a fuss getting a real review.

    “The idea behind many alphabet soup agencies is for Congress to assign regulatory duty to subject-matter experts; To an extent that *is* actually a valid concept, but it certainly has been taken too far.”

    It is a valid concept. Unfortunately, bureaucrats throughout history (and not just in the US, or in the modern day) have shown that they just can’t be trusted with that power.

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