“One nation, under too many laws”

by Walter Olson on December 13, 2010

Philip K. Howard’s latest, for the Washington Post:

Once enacted, most laws are ignored for generations, allowed to take on a life of their own without meaningful review. Decade after decade, they pile up like sediment in a harbor, bogging the country down – in dense regulation, unaffordable health care, and higher taxes and public debt.

Time, he says, to revisit the “sunset law” idea, under which laws would expire unless affirmatively reenacted, and radical simplification as well.

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12.17.10 at 5:02 pm


1 Bill Poser 12.13.10 at 11:44 pm

There is a danger to automatic sunsetting, namely that the legislature will neglect to renew legislation that should be renewed, such as the laws against murder. It might be wise to have a core of laws not subject to sunsetting.

2 bradley13 12.14.10 at 9:59 am

I disagree. If you leave a loophole, the legislatures will shove elephants through it. Not only should all laws have a sunset date, it should also be impossible to do any sort of mass renewal.

Even fundamental laws needs a review and refresh once in a while. The sunset provisions would enforce this.

3 Chris 12.14.10 at 10:18 am

@Bill Poser, maybe criminal laws should be exempted? In either case, I doubt a legislator would hold up reenacting a clear law like murder though and that the danger is much more in living intact poorly performing laws. I agree with the sentiment of the piece. So many legal regimes continue solely because of inertia, even though knowing what we know today about how X law works, we would never pass it if we had the choice to do it over. I mean does anyone really believe that antitrust is a good legal system?

4 Bill Poser 12.14.10 at 1:01 pm

My concern is not that some legislator would hold up re-enactment of something like the law against murder but rather that the legislature would simply not get around to it in time. If I recall correctly, due to a combination of court decisions on the death penalty and the ineptness of the legislature, California for a time had a ridiculously low maximum penalty for murder (8 years, I think).

5 gumby 12.14.10 at 1:06 pm

Talk about a recipe for legislative paralysis.

6 John A 12.14.10 at 2:30 pm

gumby, that is not a bug but a feature.

I do think almost every law should have a “sunset” clause of ten-fifteen years, and cannot in truth think of an exception. Murder may not be a good exmple, laws involving various forms of homicide are reviewed even more often than a “sunset” provision would provide. largely because they get fairly heavily publicised. In doing some research on an unrekated topic a few years ago, I came to realise that in my State the law against women sitting in a bar (passed circa 1912) was still in effect!

Another example which actually does show up in the news regularly today would be marijuana. While I probably would not support complete legalization, it should certainly be moved from the compete-ban section of Federal law to one of the regulated sections. The complete ban is on the basis of being “of no medical use” which may have been true in the early 1950s, but derivatives are now in regular use in medicine while at the same time traditionalist sailors cannot import hemp[en] ropes/lines from Canada.

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