When Congress passes a highly unpopular bill that forces people to buy products from private businesses, and then the Supreme Court upholds it, something needs to change. That’s because the health care bill is part of an even bigger problem: the very rules of the political game.
Congress loves to pass new laws—more than 100 in most years. These give members something to write home about to impress voters. But they’re not too crazy about getting rid of old laws. In addition to insurance mandates, the federal books are overflowing with obsolete and antiquated statutes. To clear out this dead wood, Congress should create a new committee: the Committee on Repeals.
One problem immediately raises its head. Membership on the Committee on Repeals would likely damage a representative’s social standing, since he’d be raining on other lawmakers’ regulatory parades. This would make many members reluctant to sit on the committee. And in any event, voters usually prefer a candidate who promises them free goodies to one who promises them repeal.
The Repeal Committee chair would likely be a social pariah on Capitol Hill. For that reason, he or she should be ineligible to serve on any other committee. This would give the chair plenty of reason to take the position seriously, because it would curb his colleagues’ ability to make backroom deals in exchange for preserving their favored programs. And the only accomplishments the Repeal Committee chair could brag about would be the number of laws repealed.
The job would be a big one. All in all, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) rambles on for 169,000 pages, many of which could be dispensed with and replaced with nothing. For example, one of the 50 titles in the CFR is dedicated entirely to the Panama Canal, which hasn’t been under United States jurisdiction since 1999. Elsewhere, an entire chapter consists of guidelines for dealing with the Y2K computer crisis that didn’t happen 12 years ago.
These useless laws and regulations waste time and money, and make it harder for individuals to live within the bounds of the law.
As old Washington hand Joseph Gibson points out in his book, A Better Congress, a repeal committee would almost certainly face strong opposition from members of other committees, who would see it as a threat to their own prerogatives. To soften this opposition, he suggests involving the committee with jurisdiction over the statute to be repealed through a secondary referral—subject to time limit to ensure that the committee cannot sit on a proposed repeal indefinitely.
Congress obviously has little incentive to create a Repeal Committee. But another, more politically palatable version of the same reform: an independent annual commission, such as the BRAC Commission that successfully closed several unneeded military bases.
The independent Repeal Commission could be bi-partisan, and appointed by the president. Every year, it would comb through the books and send Congress a package of its suggested repeals. Congress would then be required to give the package an up-or-down vote, without amendment, within a certain period of time, say, 10 legislative days.
The no amendments requirement is important. For one, it prevents a free-for-all of members undoing individual repeals affecting their districts. For another, it allows Congress to shift political blame to the Commission, and away from itself. The benefits of the larger repeal package are well worth the political pain of giving up one pork project in a given member’s district. This allows that member to make that case: “I voted for the package because the total good outweighed this particular bad,” he could tell voters.
Maybe creating a committee on repeals, or a whole house on it, is unfeasible. But we won’t know for sure until we try it. We have to find some way of reining in the ever-expanding and never-contracting sphere of government influence over our lives.