Too Many Laws

In a recent column in The Dallas Morning News, Philip Howard put forth a unique idea, have federal and state laws expire after ten or fifteen years. He proposed that laws be repealed so they could be revisited instead of piling up like “sediment in a harbor.”

Just think of how streamlined some aspects of government could be if laws determining how agencies are administrated were culled. IRS, anyone? That agency is so top-heavy with laws I wonder how it can even stand anymore.

Howard wrote, “Our political class assumes that, after a law is formed in the crucible of democracy, it should be honored as if it is one of the Ten Commandments, except it is more like one of 10 million.”

Ten million laws. Whew. Who can even keep track of so many? Are some so obscure they haven’t been read in decades? Where are they all stored?  Do new laws contradict old laws? Do we even know?

I like Howard’s idea. He believes that “A healthy democracy must make fresh choices.” Society changes and evolves, it doesn’t remain in one place forever, but our laws do. Sometimes it is amusing to look at old laws that are still on the books in some states. We laugh at a law that prohibits spitting on the sidewalk, but nobody says, “Gee, maybe we don’t need that law anymore.”

And I’m guessing that at least half of those 10 million laws that govern us are as antiquated as that one.

The title of Howard’s op-ed piece was “One nation under too many laws”, and I agree. How about you?

9 thoughts on “Too Many Laws”

  1. I have to play devil’s advocate with you on this one, right down to spitting on the sidewalk. If everyone did that – and many people would – it could become a virulent health hazard, not to mention an eyesore. I think a review of laws every so often would be a good idea, but not an expiration. On the other hand, it would add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. My two cents.

  2. I also think it would be a bad idea for laws to expire. Knowing politicians, someone would be filibustering something, thus preventing a block of laws from being renewed in a timely manner. What happens when, say, the law against murder expires for three days? On a less dramatic level, what happens when zoning laws expire and a company swoops in to build a meat rendering plant in a predominantly residential neighborhood?

    The simple absence of action by our elected representatives (who, regardless of party, generally do not have a great track record of actually taking real action),would potentially lead to anarchy.

    I’ll agree that we have too many laws, and a good many of them are outdated and outright stupid, however, making all laws expire is a dangerous idea. And the instant you try to make a distinction between important laws that should never expire versus laws that should be temporary, the line between those categories will instantly blur because every politician, PAC, and lawyer will insist that their pet law is of the type that must be permanent. That just adds another layer of contention and debate, and thus another barrier to getting anything accomplished.

    I like Carol’s idea of reviewing laws, so the outdated and stupid ones could be culled. I suppose that already happens now as various groups around the country call for the repeal of laws here and there. It’s not very systematic, but it’s better than nothing.

    Winston Churchill said, “…democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried…” I think the same could be said of our system of laws. It’s messy, but so are all the alternatives.

  3. Good points Carol and Anj. I love it when we can have a back and forth like this in discussing an issue. I don’t think the editorial writer meant that all laws should automatically expire at some point. In reading the whole piece, I got the sense that he was saying laws should be periodically reviewed and then repealed if they were no longer necessary.

  4. Some of the old laws are very outdated and totally forgotten, but I can imagine the craziness and committees and arguing that would occur just to form a group to cull the useless and meaningless laws out. It would really result in gridlock.

    Maryann, to add to your call to get rid of all politicians and elect new ones, I say, no person can serve more than one term.

  5. I like the idea, but with the extremes we have in politics right now, it would be risky. If I could be guaranteed that rational, thinking people would review them and decide, I might be for it.

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