Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Time to Clean House before We Pass New Laws, Let's Get Rid of Some of the Old Ones

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Time to Clean House before We Pass New Laws, Let's Get Rid of Some of the Old Ones

Article excerpt

America is basically run by dead people: We elect new representatives, but continue on with policy from decades ago. To go forward, Congress needs to confront the past.

America is mired in a tar pit of accumulated law. Reformers propose new laws to fix health care, schools and the regulatory system but almost never suggest cleaning out the legal swamp these institutions operate in. These complex legal tangles not only set goals but allocate resources and dictate the minutest details of how to meet those goals. Most are obsolete in whole or part.

Nothing important can get fixed without remaking a coherent legal framework.

The flaw is not one that can be solved by deregulation. Almost no one, for example, would disagree about the need to provide education for disabled children. But a special education law, enacted in 1975, was structured as an open-ended mandate, and soon spun out of control. Today, special ed consumes 20 percent of the total K-12 budget in America. Programs for gifted children get less than half of 1 percent, and pre-K education gets almost nothing. Is this a sensible allocation of education dollars? No one is even asking the question.

Congress treats most laws as if they were the Ten Commandments -- except they're more like the 10 million commandments. Most legislative programs do not codify timeless principles of right and wrong. They are tools of social management. These laws allocate social resources -- almost 70 percent of federal revenue in 2010 was consumed by three entitlement programs enacted a half century or more ago. Congress almost never goes back to rationalize these programs. Running government today is like trying to run a business using every idea every manager ever had.

There are four problems caused by the accumulation of old law:

* Too much law causes paralysis. Over the past century laws have piled up, like sediment in the harbor, until it's almost impossible to do anything sensibly. Building a "green infrastructure," for example, is stymied by environmental processes that sometimes consume upwards of a decade.

* Laws have unintended consequences. Things never work out as planned. …

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