Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Stop the rot—with sunlight and sunset

Jerry Stratton, March 3, 2015

Sunset behind Washington Monument

Sunset and sunlight: two serious structural changes to the pillar of our representative democracy.

Jay Cost talks a good description of the problem of soft corruption in Stop the Rot. The checks and balances meant to pit special special interests against each other and so produce good government are failing as more power converges on DC and the steady accumulation of complex laws encourages soft corruption: the shaping of tiny parts of complex laws to benefit campaign contributors or home-district interests. There appears no limit on the pork that can be funneled back home or the special treatment that can be hidden in wordy laws.

Costs’s solution: add more laws on top of our existing laws, increase the size of the civil service bureaucracy in congress, and increase the the control Washington has over party leadership, further blurring the line between parties and the government. His advice seems designed in direct opposition to his advice that we "begin by recognizing that previous attempts to fix it have failed" and that "the rules of the game be adjusted so that selfish interests will combine to produce socially beneficial results”.

Whereas once parties were themselves independent interests, their status as just another arm of the federal government will be further cemented; and his increase in the number of staff members provided to representatives is specifically designed, he says, to decreased the influence of private citizens (of course, he calls them special interests) in providing information to their representatives.

Go read the article—while I disagree with his conclusions, his summation of the problem is good. As Cost says, “reform conservatism must admit the connection between policies needing reform and the process that created them.”

I’d argue for a zero-based budget: special interests are not pitted against one another today because we pretend that the font of public funds is some limitless magical well rather than dependent on taxes. A zero-based budget process would force interests to compete for tax money.1

I’d also argue for a simplification of existing laws, and some mechanism for keeping them simple. It’s the massive size of our current laws, of cruft upon cruft, that make it easy for those who can afford lawyers and lobbyists to find loopholes and carve out hidden special treatment. For example:

  • An automatic sunset provision for all laws, requiring that they sunset in several years, with a supermajority requirement at the time of the sunset to make them permanent. This would ensure that only those laws that really matter would become permanent. It would increase the scrutiny on the effect of laws after they pass by making that scrutiny more politically useful.
  • A requirement that all bills be publicly visible for several days, perhaps dependent on the size of the bill in question, before being voted on at each level of government. This would help crowdsource rooting out corruption. All interests would see what benefits the other was getting. By tying the length of the delay to the size of the bill, laws that need to be passed quickly would also be smaller. An emergency provision might be able to violate this requirement, but only by adding a secondary sunset period of several weeks in addition to the normal sunset of several years.
  • All regulations sunset as well, after several months, unless voted on by congress—at which point they fall under the normal sunset provisions for laws. This would apply the benefits of the other reforms to the regulatory bureaucracy, but would also leverage our already-existing Madisonian process to regulations.
  • I’d also argue for some mechanism to encourage the removal of old laws. Here I am at a a loss—the mechanism must not encourage the passage of interminably-written laws just so they can be repealed later to game whatever benefit removal provides.

These would be true structural reforms, not additional levels on an already shaky structure. They would not take our current mistakes and strengthen them, and they would be far more worthy of Madison’s vision. They are, further, potentially popular reforms—our current President ran on a sunlight provision, for example, that he then ignored. But sunset and sunlight provisions both should enjoy public support.

In response to Essential Revolution: The Return of the Republicans: The crime of the day is when you do it again.

  1. This was, honestly, where I saw Cost going with his Madison quote that “ambition be made to counteract ambition”.

  1. <- The Alternative
  2. Corruption oxymoron ->