Outdated Laws and Subsidies—How Did It Get So Bad?

Much like a clogged artery, interest-specific legislation has slowly accumulated in the legal code, blocking progress and undermining the health of the system.



Would you be surprised to hear that our government is just like a middle-aged American who, having eaten fast food for decades, now faces heart trouble in his golden years? Aging nations have arteries clogged with obsolete laws, slowing blood flow and preventing oxygen from reaching all parts of the body politic. Physicians call this arteriosclerosis; historians see decline of empire.

Congress has been on autopilot for so long that we have forgotten how to fly the plane manually.

It happens so slowly and naturally that no one notices. Legislators want to prove that they care about children, seniors, veterans, etc. by creating programs to benefit them. Elected officials are so busy campaigning that they (and their staffs) don't review the statute books to see which programs already exist. They certainly don't check to see which ones are working, and which are not. As a result, each new generation of politicians simply adds another layer of spending and bureaucracy.

Immortality awaits the legislator fortunate enough to have a significant law named after him. Think of Pell grants or Stafford loans for students, Sarbanes-Oxley to regulate Wall Street, or the Hyde Amendment on abortions.

Conversely, there's little or no reward in repealing laws, only the risk of offending people who benefit from the existing programs. Any politician who's ever been re-elected knows that friends come and go; enemies accumulate.

This is why there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of overlapping and duplicative programs for favored constituencies, as opposed to one or two programs that really deliver. This also explains why our laws are so complex that they are becoming almost impossible to understand.

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A small but classic example from my jurisdiction on the House Armed Services Committee is the mohair subsidy, which originated post WWII out of concern about the future availability of wool for military uniforms. Today, more than a half century later -- when military uniforms are largely composed of synthetic material -- the program still benefits goat herders in Texas, now under the friendly jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committee. The subsidy was seemingly killed in the mid-90s and again in 2001, but it was resuscitated each time by the loving care of special interests. And while it was defunded again last year, the underlying authorizing legislation remains on the books, ready to revive the subsidy at any moment.

Due to the accumulation of increasingly creaky laws, Congress has lost control of budgeting itself. The vast majority of federal spending is now on automatic pilot, either in the form of mandatory spending ($2.3 trillion, annually) or tax expenditures ($1.3 trillion). Congress could adjourn for a year without slowing spending growth. When in session, we spend 90 percent of our time on the remaining 30 percent of the budget, discretionary spending -- what most people think of as government. Congress has been on autopilot for so long that we have forgotten how to fly the plane with our own hands.

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Jim Cooper is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Nashville and its surrounding areas. More

Jim Cooper has represented Nashville and surrounding areas in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2002. Cooper sits on two House committees, Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform, and was the lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation to address the issue of the federal deficit. His proposal of a bipartisan fiscal commission became the model for the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

A graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cooper earned a B.A. in history and economics as a Morehead Scholar in 1975. He received a B.A./M.A. in politics and economics as a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University in 1977, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1980. Currently, Cooper teaches a course on health policy at the Owen School of Business at Vanderbilt University. He and his wife, Martha, live in Nashville and have three children.

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