February 26 marked the beginning of Lent, a penitential time of 40 days in the Christian calendar in which we reflect on our mortality and shortcomings, and make commitments to pursue virtuous habits and strengthen our ethical discipline. At my own parish in Washington, D.C., our rector told us about how the idea of Lent is becoming more popular in non-religious contexts as well, even among a group of atheist bloggers who for the past few years have adopted the idea of giving up bad habits and pursuing greater personal discipline for 40 days. The New York Times has also examined the apparently growing trend of secular Lenten observances.
As I was considering the significance of the Lenten season for myself, I thought about how we might apply it in the world of politics and government — to urge abstemiousness and austerity not on our fellow citizens, but on the government itself.
One of the big, structural problems with both lawmaking and rulemaking is that once laws are passed and rules published, there is little incentive or institutional opportunity to review them, even if the circumstances that originally motivated their enactment have changed. We have a handful of exceptions, such as when the Export-Import Bank’s charter needs to be renewed by Congress, but most law and policy at the federal level simply sails on from one decade to the next, unchallenged.
But if we take a Lenten view toward federal policy, we can see the virtue of stopping, reflecting and critically assessing the value of the government’s standard operating procedures. Having a specific time of the year when we are expected to be reflective and critical is important precisely because it’s so difficult to do so in the general run of events, when we’re focused on completing necessary tasks and getting to the end of the next week, quarter and fiscal year.
This is why, in government terms, we need things like sunset and “look-back” or “retrospective review” provisions, so that federal policymakers and civil servants have the opportunity to evaluate the real-world impact of the laws and policies they implement. A former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (and current D.C. Circuit Court judge), Neomi Rao, for example, has frequently advocated for more vigorous retrospective review of federal regulation.
In the early days of the church, Lent was also a time during which people who had offended the standards of the community, even to the point of being physically exiled from it, were rehabilitated and welcomed back. That approach can be applied to government agencies and officers who have suffered from an excess of zeal in deploying their regulatory authority.
Rather than trying to ferret out agents of the “deep state,” a retrospective review process can simply be a no-fault course correction, in which the standards and goals of a given administration are affirmed. The current administration’s 2019 executive orders on guidance (13891) and enforcement (13892) were a good start at reining in such excess, but the Executive Branch could use an annual review process by which enforcement actions and deployment of guidance documents in each agency are reconsidered and, where appropriate, challenged.
Making this an annual process, rather than something taken up every four to eight years by a new president, is also important. The longer we go without a critical process of self-reflection, the more our own personal flaws and failings grow. So, too, with government policy. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has done excellent work in measuring not just the costs of individual programs, or of even the total cost of regulatory compliance each year (as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Wayne Crews does), but of federal regulations’ cumulative, long-term impact on economic growth and prosperity.
When we attempt to consider the costs and benefits of a new program, we often ignore the decades of previously enacted requirements in the same area, and how that existing burden would interact with the proposed new intervention. If a single straw can break the back of an already overloaded camel, so, too, a seemingly minor new government burden could push an existing employer out of business.
Both ancient wisdom and modern management theory teach us that reflecting on and evaluating what we do every day is vital to staying on track and reaching our goals. Whether we want to be humble and generous or efficient and productive, we need a process by which we can evaluate our progress and correct the ways in which we have failed ourselves and those around us. The government that serves us all, as citizens and taxpayers, can and should do a much better job at its own version of this Lenten obligation.
Originally published at The Washington Times.