Practical Steps to Limiting Government: Required Reading Edition

“If companies that are “too big to fail” are too big to exist, then bills that are “too long to read” are too long to pass. This sort of behavior — passing bills that no one has read — or, that in the case of the healthcare “bill” haven’t even actually been written — represents political corruption of the first order. If representation is the basis on which laws bind the citizen, then why should citizens regard themselves as bound by laws that their representatives haven’t read, or, sometimes, even written yet?”

~ Glenn Reynolds

Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion “stimulus’’ bill in February – the largest spending bill in history – after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House. And that wasn’t the worst of it.

~ Jeff Jacoby

(h/t Conor)

Conservatives like to talk about limiting government, but it’s a lot more difficult to do in practice than in theory.  It is rather like quitting a bad habit – much more difficult than picking it up (which is a fairly good analogy for growth of government in general).  And it’s a lot easier to talk about such limitations when not in power than when the tables turn.  The process of limiting government is subject to all sorts of backlash and unintended consequences, and more often than not it is simply a talking point.

Once government has grown, it’s extremely difficult to cut it back – reason enough, in my mind, to keep it as limited as possible from the outset.  But I think practical steps can be taken to limit the state, and often as not, these can be done by limiting lawmakers themselves, making the legislative process more transparent, and focusing not simply on the limits but on the process.

I like the “read the bill” movement.  I think it would curb Democratic excesses and make Republicans honest.  I think that we should go further, though.  All bills passed in Congress should be limited to exactly the stated purpose of the bill.  If separate laws need to be passed, then they should be passed separately.  There is no reason to include non-germane amendments in our legislation ever.  Take that option off the table.  Why does a tourism bill include E-verify laws?   We need to not only require shorter, more accessible bills which our lawmakers are required to read, we need to put a cap on the breadth of laws and regulations and hand-outs that each bill can include. 

(I would like to also place a cap on the breadth of subjects that Congressmen could waste their time and our money on in general, but I doubt that will ever happen.  Browse some of the laws our national leaders are working on and you start to get a sense of just how tiresome and beside-the-point so much of the federal government really is….


  • H.Con.Res. 14 (ih) Supporting the goals and ideals of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week.
  • H.Con.Res. 27 (ih) Authorizing the use of the rotunda of the Capitol for a ceremony in honor of the bicentennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln.
  • H.R. 2162 (ih) To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 123 11th Avenue South in Nampa, Idaho, as the “Herbert A Littleton Postal Station”

Remember, this is our federal government we’re talking about here….)

But back to the matter at hand.

Along with limiting the number of resolutions contained in a bill, I’d also like to see mandatory grace periods between when a bill is changed and when it can be voted on.  No backdoor provisions.  No “placeholders” to allow changes to be made after the vote is cast.  It’s bad enough that our lawmakers have gone to such great length to ignore half of what they pass into law, but that they allow hypothetical changes to be made after their vote strikes me as near-criminal.

A big part of the reason that the federal government gets away with so much, and grows so big, is that lawmakers and lobbyists know that in order for anything to pass through congress it must first be subjected to a gauntlet of wheelings and dealings.  This gives them cover for pet projects.  Any piece of legislation can be tacked on to any other.  Meaningless laws and regulations ensue.  See Waxman-Markey for details.

Legislation that enters one house, comes out the other looking nothing like it did at its inception.  Obviously this is necessary to some degree.  To make good laws, or passable laws, some compromise will necessarily take place.  If we limit the length and scope possible for the passage of any bill, however, we could also limit the transmogrification process to some degree.  Add to that mandatory time-limits between changes and votes, mandatory reading of all bills by those who vote on them, and you at least have some semblance of an honest legislative process take shape.  And with honest legislation comes limited government.

I would also suggest something along the lines of the CBO to monitor special interests and their impact on each piece of legislation.  The CBO does a good job (though not a good enough job) at sobering up over-exuberant lawmakers with more realistic budget numbers.  A similar office could examine and publish the effects laws have on industry groups, the relationship between lawmakers and the industries and lobbyists in question, and the possible side-effects of laws (such as regulatory capture).  This might have a similarly sobering effect.

Critics will claim that such changes in the legislative process will make government less efficient and too slow.  However, we should realize that an efficient government does not pass the sort of legislation that our government passes.  An efficient government does not have eyes the size of its stomach.  Lawmakers in a functioning system would only attempt to pass necessary legislation, and would not be burdened by the constant addition of new resolutions that have nothing to do with the original intent of the law.  And one of the most elegant ways to limit government is to make it function more slowly.  The worst excesses we’ve seen in the past ten years have all been the result of a fast-acting, over-reaching congress and an out of control executive.  From the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, to TARP, whenever congress acts quickly and boldly they act badly.

Thoughts?  Ideas on other practical measures to limit government?

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20 thoughts on “Practical Steps to Limiting Government: Required Reading Edition

    • I think of form poetry. I think – the form causes you to really craft your poetry. You have so many syllables. You have so many lines. Maybe you even have to rhyme a bit. You have limits, and those limits force your hand, and often force you to really create poetry you wouldn’t have done if given free reign.

      Now, this can apply to life in general quite easily. We, as people, should apply limits to ourselves, and we often have limits imposed on us (gravity is a blessing; so is the lack of fabulous riches I’d say, for most of us…). The government should be so constricted. Laws should not be free verse, they should follow some set limits. If you can’t pass a good bill in ten pages or less (to conjure up a number out of thin air) then maybe you shouldn’t pass it at all….

      But practically speaking, I don’t know how hard it would be to get this pushed. I think it would be very, very popular across the board with voters, and very, very unpopular with congressmen.

      That says something about our “representative democracy” eh?

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  1. But could you actually get a bill like this passed through congress now? Every politician uses those kind of amendments to get pet projects for their constituencies through, and to horse-trade with other politicians. They would strenuously resist this limitation on the process. My question is, are there other practical ways to improve government that we could actually get passed in the near-term? I don’t think this qualifies, although I wish it did.

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  2. Oh for heaven’s sake. It’s not like no one has ever thought of this before.

    Please wend your way over to the US Constitution. Take a look at Art. I, section V “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings”.

    Under the Constition, the Rules Committee set the rules for each session. You want to impose restrictions on the authority of the Rules Committee? Amend the Constitution.

    Next, assuming you have a “single subject” rule, think about how a challenge under such a law would be brought. Would any citizen have standing, or just a Member of the House or Senate? Original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court or would a lower court have to conduct fact-finding? Could judicial challenges be brought to individual amendments during the legislative process, or only to the final engrossed bill? Would the challenge lie only to those sections in the engrossed bill that are not “germane”? Is germanity determined by the face of the bill only? Legislative intent? Can legislators be deposed what they meant by their legislative intent?

    There’s a good reason why courts don’t touch so-called “political questions”. Courts are supposed to be co-equal to the Legislative Branches, not their nanny. These questions are not subject to judicial resolution.

    Don’t like your government? Hire a different one.

    And before you point fingers solely at the Dems, research the passage of Medicare Part D.

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    • “Hire a different one” is a nonserious, unhelpful response that doesn’t engage the problem. It’s not even smart snark.
      My understanding: in the current system, the judiciary determines if a congressional law has violated the precepts of the constitution. So if the “one-subject” rule were imposed via amendment, then these would be judiciary questions. If it were not, and this was imposed by law or by Rules Committee, there would be different oversight mechanisms. But it is not impossible to imagine an outline for what such mechanisms might look like. If I thought doing so would enhance the chances of such a law being passed, I would give more thought to it.

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      • Good point BCChase. Look, if people want to refine these ideas, or put out some counter-proposals, I’m all for that. I’m not a wonk.

        And I realize a lot of my ideas might not even be that original. Then again, original is not necessarily the best. Sometimes you just have to think through other people’s ideas and expand on them. I’m trying to lay the case for more simple, more limited government. Should we not attempt to do that? Do we feel better represented by a congress that writes these awful, bloated, convoluted laws? Or would we prefer to understand and have our lawmakers understand these policies?

        Smart government is almost always also lean, limited, and responsive. That is not what we have, under either party at this time.

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        • “Smart government is almost always also lean, limited, and responsive.”

          I disagree two-thirds-heartedly. Smart government is probably almost always responsive, but I object to the idea that government needs to be particularly limited to be smart. The biggest problem with our government is that it is full of people who themselves aren’t very smart, and they’re (in large part) disingenuous to boot.

          “Hire a different one” may be somewhat unhelpful, but it’s probably the only truly sensible solution. Our political history is so full of warnings that the system has to be set up to thwart the baser instincts of our nature (and that works somewhat – thanks Madison!) that we forget how much the people who set up the system were dedicated to governing well. As long as people like Michelle Bachmann – who is such a stupid, small, wicked moron that she shouldn’t be allowed in your living room, let alone Congress – are in charge, no amount of good rulemaking is going to be able to combat the fact that our leaders are just not very smart or very good people.

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  3. E.D. your writing is becoming more and more erudite! Re: gummint, how about we quit it ‘cold turkey.’ Kinda like a return to the era of the beloved tertium quids. You can tell me why that can’t be.
    Also, as some astute commentator mentioned above, until we stupid Americans learn to vote 3rd, 4th, and 5th party we’re doomed to be whores for the Dempublicans!

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    • Bob, you know – I think if we could, that’d be fantastic. I mean, I think I’d like to keep my local government and just hold the fact that we quit the federal government over their head. They’d be pretty responsive after that, methinks. But honestly, scrolling through the house resolutions today I wanted to laugh (or cry) at the sheer nonsense of it.

      And then there’s these wars and what-not. And the bailouts.

      …list goes on and on…

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  4. Ideas on practical ways to limit [federal] government:

    None. You’re way outvoted on this issue. Any serious proposal to limit federal government power either procedurally or substantively gets about 0% of the votes.

    Looking at the issue from the point of taxes, the only programs that matter are the Big 5: Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid/Interest on Treasury Debt/DOD and related programs.

    Entitlement programs are incredibly popular. Moreover, no one has a really good alternative that’s cheaper. And before anyone raises means-testing, let’s remember that income-based means testing is bad enough, but wealth-based means testing would be a combination of a protocological exam, a tax audit and the bite of a pit bull.

    On a regulatory basis, state and local agencies are far more intrusive than the feds (although occasionally under delegation of federal law — see the Clean Water Act). But capturing interstate externalities (air and water pollution, CO2 emission, hazardous waste, habitat destruction, etc.) is what I want our federal government to do. As do millions of fellow Americans.

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    • I don’t disagree with a lot of your opinions on what the federal government should do – I’m more liberal than E.D. But one thing I definitely agree with him on is the federal government is inefficient, wasteful, and often governs even the things I want it to very badly. In this respect, I think it is only getting worse. I think they could perform a lot of their needed regulatory functions without a lot of the bloat. I’m interested in good suggestions for fighting it. Because I suspect that if the government continues to balloon, and continues to be filled with only some competent people, instead of most or all, eventually there will be a violent response (in terms of magnitude, not physical harm). I want to avoid that for my country, but I am cynical enough to realize, as you say, it may be impossible.

      Entropy, in the end, makes fools of us all, in my government and in my apartment.

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  5. I gotta say I love the idea.

    Obviously there are many good ideas that are politically impractical, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that you make a good critique. Though, I think the issue of not reading landmark and large pieces of legislation is more offensive than passing harmless resolutions. (A staffer wrote them, there’s maybe a five minute speech, and then done) I don’t think limiting or slowing resolutions honouring days/contributions/people, in any meaningful way limits the size or performance of government.

    Personally, I”ve always wondered if we’d get better or worst laws if we simply sequestered the Congress during the legislative session. No lobbyists, no 24 hour news cycle, no grassroots phonebanking.

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