Monday, June 14, 2010

Slow Down Government, Part II: Congressional Reform

Over the last decade, we have seen a disturbing trend of unaccountability in Congress. The bills have gotten longer, costlier, and more blatantly unconstitutional, and they seem to pass them faster than we can read them. This post is Part II of a two-part series on legislative reform. Part I dealt with reform of state assemblies. Let's look now at how we can slow down the U.S. Congress.

The leading authority on downsizing Congress is, fittingly, the organization Downsize DC. Downsize DC has authored four bills which could be passed to reform the U.S. Congress. These would require legislators to pay more attention to what they pass, effectively slowing down the process and allowing the public to be more informed about what is in the bills.

The first of these is the "Read the Bills Act" (RTBA). RTBA requires that each bill be read in its entirety before a quorum in both the House and Senate. It requires each legislator to sign a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that they have read a bill before they vote on it. It requires that every bill be published online for at least a week before a vote, with the date of that vote publicized in advance. RTBA does not allow Congress to waive these requirements.

Downsize DC also proposes the "One Subject at a Time Act" (OSTA). OSTA requires that each bill cover only one subject of policy change and that each bill's name specifies what the bill actually does. OSTA would avoid rider bills that sneak controversial measures into unrelated bills. For example, in 2005, the REAL ID Act, establishing a national identity card, was hidden within the "Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief." REAL ID is not a military defense or tsunami relief appropriation. It is also a controversial proposal that would have been heavily debated if proposed as its own bill. REAL ID passed through the appropriations bill, and was undiscovered by the public until after the bill had passed. OSTA also requires that a bill's name describes what it actually does. This might replace a marketing slogan like "No Child Left Behind" with an honest title like the "Act to Require Standardized Testing to Receive Federal Education Funding." The bill could only do what it says it does, and it would be difficult to spin it to be interpreted as otherwise.

Next on the Downsize DC agenda is the "Write the Laws Act" (WTLA). WTLA requires Congress to write specific legislation, rather than delegate the responsibilities of regulation and punishment responsibilities to bureaucrats. Congress would have to specify each regulation, and it would have to be enforced by the courts. This means the EPA can't suddenly decide that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that causes global warming and start charging companies fees for CO2 output. Congress would have to pass a law, and I imagine the citizens would not make it easy for them.

Finally, Downsize DC's "Enumerated Powers Act" (EPA) would require Congress to cite the constitutional authority it has to pass each law. The "enumerated" legislative powers of Congress are in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. As the 10th Amendment specifies, any powers not specified in Article I, Section 8 "are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." If the enumerated Powers Act were passed, Rep. Phil Hare might have to "care" about whether a bill like Obamacare is constitutional.

Of these four bills, the one with perhaps the best chance of passing is the Enumerated Powers Act. It has been introduced to the current Congress by Rep. John Shadegg as H.R. 450.

If Congress believes that they have the authority to regulate us out of doing anything without their permission, it is only fair that we do the same to them. It would be nearly impossible to pass something like Obamacare, another stimulus package, or whatever other monstrosities our congressmen are concocting if Downsize DC's legislation were passed. Congress should be forced to read the bills, write them responsibly, specify the laws within the bills without delegating powers, and justify the constitutionality of every law they try to pass. If we want to reduce the size and scope of government, we should start by putting Congress on a leash.

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