It's Time to Clean House

America is basically run by dead people: We elect new representatives, but continue on with policy from decades ago. To go forward, Congress needs to confront the past.

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This is the first article in a new series The Atlantic is publishing in partnership with Common Good, a nonpartisan government reform organization, devoted to remaking government within budget and without suffocating the American spirit. Each month, America the Fixable will identify a different challenge facing the United States -- regulation, school bureaucracy, healthcare, civil service, campaign finance reform -- and, drawing together a range of expert voices on the topic, offer potential solutions in articles, online discussions, and video reports. This month, the series tackles the scourge of obsolete laws.--The Editors


America is mired in a tarpit of accumulated law. Reformers propose new laws to fix health care, schools, and the regulatory system, but almost never suggest cleaning out the legal swamp these institutions operate in. These complex legal tangles not only set goals but allocate resources and dictate the minutest details of how to meet those goals. Most are obsolete in whole or part.

Running government today is like trying to run a business using every idea every manager ever had.

Nothing important can get fixed without remaking a coherent legal framework.

The flaw is not one that can be solved by deregulation. Almost no one, for example, would disagree about the need to provide education for disabled children. But special education law, enacted in 1975, was structured as an open-ended mandate, and soon spun out of control. Today, special ed consumes 20 percent of the total K-12 budget in America. Programs for gifted children get less than half of one percent, and pre-K education gets almost nothing. Is this a sensible allocation of education dollars? No one is even asking the question.

Congress treats most laws as if they were the Ten Commandments -- except they're more like the 10 million commandments. Most legislative programs do not codify timeless principles of right and wrong. They are tools of social management. These laws allocate social resources -- almost 70 percent of federal revenue in 2010 was consumed by three entitlement programs enacted a half century or more ago. Congress almost never goes back to rationalize these programs. Running government today is like trying to run a business using every idea every manager ever had.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

At this point, Democracy is basically run by dead people. We elect new representatives, but society is run by policy ideas and political deals from decades ago. Congress has a tragic misconception of its responsibility -- it sees itself as a body that makes new law, not one that makes sense of old laws.

The problem of obsolete law is not theoretical. It's concrete, affecting daily choices across the country. It adds to cost, and slows productive activity to a crawl.

Presented by

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

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