We are, as our leaders as well as activists often remind us, proudly a nation of laws. But do we have too many laws?
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seems to think so, as do many of his GOP colleagues. Presented with the sad facts of the state of the U.S. Congress – an institution which has come to a virtual halt, in terms of passing legislation – Boehner explained on CBS's "Face the Nation":
We should not be judged by how many new laws we create, we ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We've got more laws than the administration could ever enforce.
That's an awfully broad brush with which to paint the American system of democracy and jurisprudence. And it sounds more like the words of a newer member of Congress, someone inexperienced with legislating and unfamiliar with how the law works, than it sounds like Boehner, a thoughtful, veteran lawmaker. And what does it even mean?
Republicans think the country – especially business – is wildly over-regulated, and they want to undo a lot of those regulations. True, some regulations are cumbersome to the point of being absurd, and ought to be streamlined, updated or even tossed out. But most regulations were put there for a reason, and often in response to abuses.
The Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul law, for example, was nowhere near as restrictive of the industry as liberals had hoped for. But still, conservatives want to throw it out entirely. Do they genuinely believe we would not see the same sort of gross mismanagement and downright criminality displayed by Wall Street in the years preceding the Great Recession?
What about smaller industries? Fair question. Let's take the roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas, a suburban Dallas amusement park. A woman was on the ride and somehow fell out, falling 75 feet to her death. A witness said the woman had been worried that her seat restraint was not working properly. So what will happen? Texas has no regulations governing roller coasters, and the federal government has no national standards, so we'll just have to wait for the conclusions of the business itself. Think they'll recommend jail time or fines? Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who has been discussing this issue for years, going back to his time as a Massachusetts congressman, is calling anew for federal rules. Is that just another potential law we don't need, or which ought to be repealed if it is enacted?
Some of the complaints about the size and complexity of the law books appears to be rooted in naivete or sheer laziness. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act complained that the bill was more than 2,500 pages in length. Of course it was – a law that affects so many aspects of the U.S. code requires a lot of text, much of it gobbledigook that requires changing section four of part C of some chapter with this phrase or that. For heaven's sake, health care is one-seventh of the nation's economy. You can't redo it in a Tweet.
Sadder still is that the GOP isn't even being successful in achieving its own goal – repealing things. For the 38th or 39th time recently (depending how you count), the GOP-run House voted to repeal Obamacare. That act, along with the 37 or 38 before it, will go nowhere. They didn't vote to repeal it; they voted to let their conservative constituents know they voted to repeal it. And they voted that way because they want people to believe, erroneously, that the law won't end up going into effect after all. That could lead people to reject the health care exchanges, the machinery for which starts in October, and that could in turn help to make the new law less successful. The Do-Nothing Congress was disappointing enough. The Do-Damage Congress is tragic.
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