US Congress: Law making factory.

I’m starting this from the idea that we have too many laws. If you object to that idea, feel free to make a case for it.

In the US, we have a ridiculous amount of laws. I can’t find a cite on the exact number, but I’ve heard it’s easily enough to fill a large library. The laws on a lot of subjects are so detailed and numerous that only lawyers specializing in that subject can even begin to grasp the complexity. We’re at the point where ignorance may very well be a valid excuse regarding the law.

Many of these laws were passed with a 50% + 1 majority - and so the laws were started on questionable grounds in the first place. If 49% of lawmakers object to a law, it may be fundamentally flawed.

There are no fundamental mechanisms that keep laws ‘honest’, in that that a ‘clean water bill’ can tack on tax cuts to big business, or such.

There are no mechanisms by which laws become invalid or Congress is comeplled to review the laws.

The result is that, even though we’ve had laws covering all the basic criminals acts that can occur in society for hundreds of years, we’ve had hundreds of years of adding technical regulations and restrictions on top of them. Often conflicting and non-sensical, with riders slipped in dishonestly.

Despite the abundance of current laws, as Congress seemingly has nothing else to do, they feel compelled to pass new laws on whatever lobby groups can push them to do. Half of society wants to push laws that restrict the other half of society, and vice versa. The end result is that we have many unnecesary, illogical, and contradictory laws.

Given that minimal and simple laws intuitively seem to lead to more freedom, everything that comes out of our law making factory strips just a bit more of our freedom, and creates an even larger mess.

If we acknowledge that the current ‘law making factory’ motive for Congress is an overall negative, what mechanisms could be used to make Congress into a more reasonable body?

Three come to mind immeadiately for me:

  1. Require a 2/3rds majority (or 3/5ths) to pass any given law. This will result in less laws, and assumably, only the truly important ones would pass - because it’d take a lot to get such a large consensus on a bill. No more BS bills that only slip by because one party has a 1 member lead in Congress - but the laws that are passed are passed because a majority saw the law as a good enough thing to pass. It seems to me that any laws passed where more than 1/3rd vote against it probably should be reconsidered.

  2. Instate a system by which laws automatically expire after a few years. This would automatically get rid of archaic or silly laws (such as sodomy laws, or ‘no fishing on tuesday’ laws). It would also ensure that laws that were merely passed because one party outmuscled the other party by 1 or 2 votes wouldn’t be automatically permanent, and since that the party could lose the advantage in the next few years, bad partisan laws could be gotten rid of. The biggest cost to the system is that political stalling tactics could be used to invalidate laws, and the last thing we need is for murder to be legal because congress didn’t vote on it in time :). But I’m sure a system could be designed to overcome such things. Congress would also have to constantly vote again on some very basic laws against murder, theft, etc., keeping them busy - but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

  3. Create a house of Congress whose only purpose is to repeal laws. As they’d feel the need to be constantly busy, and have nothing else to do, they’d effective be an ‘anti-law making factory’, and could counteract some of the bad laws passed by Congress, who is constantly churning them out.

Any thoughts on the basis premise (that the constant need to put out new laws is bad), or the fixes I suggested?

An idea came to me right after I wrote this:

As part of the system proposed in idea 2, perhaps laws that received a 2/3rds majority could automatically become permanent (unless countermanded by a future law) - that would cover laws like “murder = illegal”, but laws passed with less than a 2/3rds majority could be subject to expiration.

Beef: I think that number 2 is a great idea and I was discussing it with a friend of mine yesterday actually. Number 3 is not a good one in my opinion, gives one body too broad of a power. However I do agree with the expiration date one.


Alternate legislative sessions between passing laws sessions and repealing laws sessions. Obviously, you would need something like a 2/3s or 4/5s override so emergencies could be dealt with. That deals with the problem addressed in #3 without creating a massive constitutional crisis.

#2 is the so-called “sunset provision” – they exist in some legislation. I agree that a more sweeping sunset principle would be a good idea.

As for a “large library” full of laws — and how! Good God, man, you have no idea. Just the federal tax statutes would break your back in book form. Remember, “the law” includes reporter after reporter filled with the common law (judicial decisions). You mean statutory law.

I think there’s a fair libertarian question to be asked here: outside of obvious laws against people killing and stealing from each other and other sorts of bodily harm/taking of others property: has more harm been done by people breaking laws, or by governments making and enforcing laws? It’s not at all clear which has been worse.

Your system would just result in nothing getting done, and lots of money being spent doing it.

Any societal change would be very difficult - want to legalize gay marriage? Try passing that through a government if a 2/3 majority is needed. These laws are having enough trouble getting through with only 50% support required. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to end segregation in many areas when 2/3 support was required? This just prevents change and keeps a society from progressing.

Number 2 is particularly unproductive. Could you imagine education, employment etc plans being implemented and deconstructed every few years as the party in power changes? Want to spend lots of money implementing new systems and have to spend even more money undoing them because the new government decides they’re not needed.

Besides, governments do actually need to pass legislation. How can a government hope to fix something if they’re spending all their time looking at things they’ve already dealt with a couple of years earlier.

We have governments for a reason. They serve a purpose. Tying them up with busy work may sound very good but it’s hardly productive.

A congressperson does not introduce a law for busywork. They introduce a law because the highest bidder told them too.

Can you provide a concrete example of this phenomenon? A federal criminal law with nonsensical or conflicting provisions, or with a “dishonest” rider?

  • Rick

I strongly disagree with (1). I think (2) is much better as a “proving grounds” all on its own and doesn’t require a subsequent “choke point”, which is what (1) proposes.

(2): I would like to think that the length the law would be viable for would be dependent (proportional in some way) on the ratio of SupportingVotes:TotalVotes. Probably logarithmic so that the length the law would be viable would grow quickly, but the rate of growth would decline as the length went on.

With a flat time for expiration we find ourselves much more likely to reach a point of stagnation. Constitutional Amendments, however, would be considered permanent to me; I don’t know if you meant for these, too, to be open for a moritorium or not.

(3): No way. There is an even greater danger here of party politics.

I should add that the great majority of laws are not sui generis. They are modifications to existing laws, tweaking an existing scheme this way or that.

Senor most crimes are state issues, so congress doesn’t spend too much time on things like murder and rape.

#1) As has been said nothing would get done. In our system the really big decisions do require more than a 51% majority. Think about ammendments to the Constitution.
#2) Many laws do include such provisions, sometimes called “sunset” clauses. The laws will expire if they are not extended by passing another law. Also, I assume you are aware that congress may repeal any law at any time, right? Your so called “bad partisan” law can go anytime someone wants to introduce a bill to get rid of it and get some votes.
3)Why create a third chamber to use a power allready in place? We have the President who may veto bills, and courts that may invalidate them if they are unconstitutional, why a third check?

I agree that there are too many laws, but that is more a reflection on the population’s bad taste in representatives than it is a critisism of the government system. You think the US is bad, you ought to think about what the civil law countries’ law books look like.

In regards to 3, one of the suggestions at the Constitutional Convention was to make the Supreme Court function similar to the way you describe. The idea was to make the Supreme Court a kind of “super congress”, with the responsibility to review laws passed by Congress, and veto any they deemed bad or unconstitutional.

I always wanted the options of “no new laws” in the voting booth. I would rather freeze congress for four years, and have nothing pass, than elect a democrat or republican.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single new law passed in the last four years that did anyone good. Now, I am sure there were some, but I just can’t think of one. Also, I’ll bet there are dozens of useless laws for every good one.

Congress would be better served by just setting the budget without screwing up, and not making any new law.

I’ve always felt that there were too many laws, but my proposal for reducing the number of superfluous laws on the books would be a bit different.

For every law on any level; state, federal, city, etcetera, that’s passed for the next five years, two laws at the same level must be repealed.

After five years, the ratio goes down to 1:1. Pass a law, rescind a law.

That way, our legislators would get to spend as much time finding old laws they can do without and getting them voted down as they do in trying to legislate every aspect of our lives.

That’s an interesting idea. What if Congress only sat every other year? They could just pass budgets for two years at a time, and the President or Speaker of the House could call a special session if there was an emergency. This doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I like.

I certainly agree that there are far too many laws. I don’t like the OP option #1, for reasons already covered. I don’t really care for #2, because it would create too much variation in what laws existed at any given time. Imagine you’re a business. You’re trying to figure out how to manage your environmental regulations, because you can’t remember if it’s X tons of chemical emmissions you’re limited to, or did congress change that again? You know it was Y not to long ago, but you think they changed it, but who knows? These sorts of things are already a problem, I think your idea would just make it worse. Laws would blink in and out of existence even faster than they do now.

And #3 is just plain bad. We have too many politicians as is. This would just require an additional outlay of tax dollars to pay more sengressmen, or congretors, or whatever they’d be called.

Nothing personal, it’s nice to have someone at least thinking about the issue, as I agree it’s a huge problem.

I would disagree. A congressperson really only has one way to relay to his constituents that he’s being a nice productive politician, and that’s to talk about all the wonderful laws he helped pass. Passing a bad law that makes a situation worse is better than doing nothing, from a “getting re-elected” point of view.

The problem is that people, in general, are ignorant as to what exactly goes on in the World of Politics. The government is so large and bloated and complex that being informed is difficult. I spend probably a couple hours every day following issues, and I still don’t know most of what’s going on. The average person thinks, “Well heck, Senator Bob passed a lotta laws last year, he must be doing something right.” Or maybe I’m wrong, and that’s not what the average person thinks… but the average politicians THINKS that’s what the average person thinks, so the result is the same: more laws than you can shake a stick at. We need to change this mentality. Damned if I know how. Ideas?

Yes – but I think by pointing a finger at Congress, you’re singling out the wrong target.

As ridiculous as the number of Federal laws is, the number of State laws is, like, ridiculous squared. Particularly here in California (where I’m posting from), whose legislature seems to pass laws as fast as they can be published. “I’m hungry for a sandwich,” Joe the generic California Assemblyman says, rubbing his tummy right before lunchtime. “I know, let’s pass a sandwich law!” Heck, even our state Constitution is now considered an “unwieldy document.”

I think we could start by getting rid of laws about sexual practices…

I understand my ideas are flawed, but to those who agree that this is a problem, what’s your ideal soolutions?

I like the idea of tying the permance/duration of a sunset clause to the amount of support a bill receives when it’s passed.

There’s a problem here to be considered, though: if the size and complexity of the law is too great, requiring lawyers just to start explaining it to you, then any scheme with a rapid turnover of laws would still require lawyers–except they would expert on what’s current and what’s coming up, instead. Any proposal that leaves the number of laws high will still be a complex system that’s beyond the reach of the ordinary person.

How about this: create a special judicial review board with a rotating panel of judges selected from the federal judiciary by non-partisan means (i.e., random selection for short terms, say). That board holds a mock trial for any law that gets passed, and has the power to strike the law down if it’s unconstitutional, would not have the effect of the stated motive for passing the law (which would have to be spelled out in the preamble to the law), or would create perverse situations. No law is passed until it passes judicial review.

I think that idea would solve one particularly irritating thing that happens: Congress passes “feel good” laws like the Child Online Protection Act, that are blatantly unconstitutional, then waits for someone to challenge the law in court and have it struck down. It removes the burden of challenging such laws from those who are harmed by them (and have to pay the cost of getting them struck down).