Skip to comments.America Mired in Morass of Laws and Regulations
Posted on 03/11/2004 10:48:02 PM PST by RussianConservative
Last week, Martha Stewart (search) was convicted of lying to federal investigators about a crime with which she was never charged. Most analysts agree that prosecutors never charged Stewart with the crime of insider trading because its a law too complicated for most jurors to understand.
Putting your personal opinion of Stewart aside for a moment, the case prompts larger questions about the laws and regulations that govern our land: If jurors cant understand a law well enough to determine if someone broke it, just how do lawmakers expect citizens to understand it enough to obey it? Do we really want to live in a country where good-intentioned people are required to pay high-priced attorneys to tell them whether or not theyre breaking the law?
America has too many laws, and the laws we do have are tedious, overly complex and sometimes not only impossible to understand, but impossible to comply with. Our elected officials pass laws in fits of whimsy, responding to the latest scare headlines, demands from interest groups or data from polling firms. Reason, freedom or constitutional authority rarely enter into the debate.
The federal tax code (search) today covers 17,000 pages and requires over 700 different forms. The IRS estimates Americans spend 5.1 billion hours annually merely preparing their taxes. The Tax Foundation estimates that those wasted hours drain some $194 billion annually from the U.S. economy. All of that comes before Joe Taxpayer forks over his first dime.
The federal criminal code is just as bad. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to criminally punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies, and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations, and no other crimes whatsoever. Yet the federal criminal code today spans some 1,400 pages, and thats just the pocket edition.
The Federal Registry (search), which records all of the regulations the federal government imposes on businesses (all of which carry the force of law), now exceeds 75,000 pages. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that merely complying with these regulations that is, paying lawyers to keep educated on them, interpret them and implement them costs U.S. business another $500 to $600 billion per year.
When someone, such as Martha Stewart, is accused of a federal crime, businesses then are forced to comply with subpoenas and demands from lawyers for information all on their own dime. When the IRS goes on a fishing expedition for tax evasion, for example, it can require banks and businesses to file through millions, even billions of checks, forms, documents and e-mail to comply with an information request. The same is true for the EPA, the Department of Labor or the Department of Energy. The federal criminal code, the tax code and the Federal Registry grow thicker every year, thrusting those costs ever skyward.
More disturbing than the cost of compliance, however, is the way federal officials can manipulate the confusing maze of federal laws, codes and regulations to score political points, make examples of certain people, settle scores, extort favors, or, in the case of regulation, punish disfavored corporations and industries. There are far too many federal laws and people who break them for our U.S. attorneys to enforce them with any sort of consistency. That means our federal laws are very selectively enforced, which makes the federal court system ripe for abuse.
Its even worse with regulation. With the EPA, for example, its often impossible for corporations in some industries to abide by one environmental regulation without violating another. Thats fertile ground for corruption, particularly when the same body is charged with making, enforcing and adjudicating the law.
Since President Bush and Congress seem to be in a Constitution-amending mood these days, they might consider two amendments that could remedy the situation. The first would sunset every law passed by Congress in five years, therefore requiring Congress to specifically reauthorize those laws every five years. The amendment would contain language explicitly compelling Congress to reauthorize one law at a time no omnibus bill where laws were reauthorized in batches. Such an amendment would not only force Congress to re-evaluate anachronistic laws and outdated legislation, it would also occupy more of Congress time leaving it less time to pass new laws.
My second amendment would end the so-called delegation doctrine, (search) the process by which Congress grants its constitutionally mandated lawmaking ability to federal agencies like the EPA. The amendment would require Congress to debate and vote on every single regulation listed on those 75,000 pages in the Federal Registry. Again, such an amendment would not only subject the federal regulatory scheme to some much-needed public debate, but the sheer amount of time it would take Congress to pass all of those regulations would result in fewer regulations.
Of course, neither of these amendments has much chance of ever passing. Both would not only strip Congress of a good deal of power, theyd make it a heck of a lot more difficult to be a congressman.
Consider, for example, the position Congress found itself in last year after passing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (search), that Rube Goldberg-ian hunk of legislation that was supposed to flush the corruption out of politics:
Although Congress generally exempts itself from most of the laws it passes, this law applies specifically to Congress. The same congressmen who voted for the bill were now required to abide by it. Faced themselves with the burden of complying with the complex, inches-thick laws they pass for others, both parties were forced to hold education sessions with specialty lawyers explaining to them what they could and couldnt do under the new law. A lawyer who taught the Democrats told The New York Times that his seminars elicited a sort of slack-jawed amazement at how far this thing reached. A lawyer who taught the Republicans said: There's an initial stage where the reaction is, 'This can't be true.' And then there's the actual anger stage." Democratic Rep. Henry Matsui, who championed the bill, told the Times, I didnt realize all that was in it.
Thats how much careful consideration Congress gave a bill it passed that applied to itself. Now imagine how little thought and care goes into bills it passes that apply to everyone else.
The answer, of course, is none.
If we merely required every congressman to actually understand a new law before voting for it, that would be a pretty good start.
Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publishes a Weblog at TheAgitator.com.
Plus ça à la change, plus ça à la même chose [The more things change, the more they stay the same].
Yeah the Russian model that is what we need.
Flat taxes sounds real good until you start asking questions. Questions like what rate, what protections against the time when the rate is deemed to low, what the upper limit is and will it be viewed as a VAT and then end up with both a "flat tax" plus the same income tax we have today.
That was a good idea. What went wrong?
That was a good idea. What went wrong?
1. 1913- Sixteenth Amendment ratified, allowing income tax.
2. 1913- Seventeenth Amendment ratified, giving us popularly elected senators rather than State Legislatures appointing them.
3. 1933- New Deal commerce clause corruption.
4. 1965- Great Society corruption of the general welfare clause.
It's like using TurboTax to do your 1040 because you can't keep up with the code. Soon, your machine will do the entire return for you, and the IRS machine will review the results. The Terminator used an android appearance because nobody wants to accept the notion that the machine that kills off mankind will be the tax and compliance machine.
I'm not sure what you mean by "digitizing" the law. Here is a link to the United States Code, and here is your state's laws, if you like.
What we really need more than anything else is some more damned lawyers. Anybody got an idea how many politicians are lawyers? Who said it? After the revolution, shoot all the lawyers.www.spectacle.org:
Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyer. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person's frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it's known known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare's plays, but usually there's little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of "correction", where it is "explained" that this is line really intended as a praise of the lawyer's role.
For example, one legal firm states:
"The first thing we do," said the character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, is "kill all the lawyers." Contrary to popular belief, the proposal was not designed to restore sanity to commercial life. Rather, it was intended to eliminate those who might stand in the way of a contemplated revolution -- thus underscoring the important role that lawyers can play in society.
JACK CADE. Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hoop'd pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king,- as king I will be,-
ALL. God save your majesty!
Appreciated and encouraged, he continues on in this vein:
JACK CADE. I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
And here is where Dick speaks the famous line.
DICK. The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this. Far from "eliminating those who might stand in the way of a contemplated revolution" or portraying lawyers as "guardians of independent thinking", it's offered as the best feature imagined of yet for utopia. It's hilarious. A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be "When I'm the King, there'll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot" "AND NO LAWYERS". It's a clearly lawyer-bashing joke. This is further supported by the dialogue just afterwards (which is actually quite funny even now, and must have been hilarious when the idiom was contemporary):
DICK. The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
JACK CADE. Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.- How now! who's there?
He might just as well have been describing "shrink-wrap" software licensing agreements today in the last sentence...
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