Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Sorry State of Our Union

Congressmen no longer read the bills they vote on and thus do not require them to make sense. (The latest example is the passage of a bill by the House of Representatives making “price gouging” illegal while leaving it undefined.) They leave it to the President and the Supreme Court to sort things out.

Unfortunately, the present President sometimes gives the impression of being unable to read.

And, since 1937, the Supreme Court has refused to read. It has refused to read the one thing it should be reading above all: the Constitution of the United States. Instead, its members now look for inspiration to the decisions of foreign courts.

The Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 requires corporate executives not merely to read but to certify the accuracy of their companies' financial reports. Why are Congressmen (i.e., both Representatives and Senators) held to a lesser standard? Why are they not required under penalty of perjury to certify that they have read and carefully studied each bill that they vote for? Don't the American people have the right to demand that their legislators know what they are doing?
After all, the stakes are far higher in cases of Congressional nonfeasance or malfeasance than in cases of business nonfeasance or malfeasance. In the latter, the most that one can lose is an investment. In the former, what can be lost is human life, and on a massive scale. And it is much easier to avoid the financial losses inflicted by wayward businessmen than it is to avoid the losses inflicted by wayward Congressmen. To avoid the first, it is only necessary to avoid making a bad investment. There is no such simple way to avoid the harm that can be wreaked by the second.

Yes, let us agree that there is simply no way for a Congressman to read and understand the torrent of legislation that is proposed in every session of Congress. It is simply too vast. And this is even more true of the absolute enormity of legislation that is enacted by the dozens of government regulatory agencies every year, under the authority that has been delegated to them by Congress. Indeed, the enormity of the job was the main reason for creating the regulatory agencies in the first place and delegating the authority to legislate to them.

But still, one leading and downright terrifying fact stands out. And that is that the people's elected representatives do not know what the government is doing. The government is supposed to be of, by, and for the people. The people's elected representatives are supposed to be in control of that government in the name of the people they represent. That is their job.

The situation we are in, and have been in for several generations, is one in which intelligent, representative government is increasingly impossible, simply because of the sheer size and scope of government. If we want a government that is controlled by our representatives, we need a government that is sufficiently limited in size and scope for it to be humanly possible for our representatives to know and understand what it is doing and what is being suggested that it do.

For the people's representatives to regain control of the government, its size and scope must be radically reduced.

A first step should be the refusal to enact any new legislation that the members of Congress are unwilling to swear or affirm under oath that they have read and carefully studied. And along with this, as another preliminary step, the promulgation of any new rule by any regulatory agency should be prohibited except upon that rule having been read, studied and voted into effect by a majority of the House and Senate Committees having jurisdiction over that regulatory agency. Thus, for example, before the SEC or EPA could enact any new rule, a majority of the members of the House and Senate Committees having jurisdiction over them would have to approve the new rule. This measure would effectively place members of Congress in charge of the various regulatory agencies.

Yes, the effect of these proposals would be a radical reduction in the enactment of new laws and new rules and regulations. Exactly that is what is needed if there is to be any hope of the people and their representatives regaining control of their government. As things stand, the government is comparable to a high-speed freight train hurtling down the tracks with no one in the cab of the locomotive and thus with no one to see what lies in front of the train and where it is going. That is our government today: a train wreck, a thousand train wrecks, just waiting to happen.

Comparisons to train wrecks hardly do justice to what's at stake. It's the wreckage of our country that is waiting to happen, and has been happening. And it's been happening and will continue to happen for the very simple reason that the government of the United States is out of control in the most literal sense. It is out of the control of the American people and their elected representatives. That control must be reestablished.

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.