It's hard to make sense of laws that didn't make sense in the first place -- like a decades-old ban on beer bottles with an uneven number of ounces.
The accretion of old law is a problem across the spectrum of American government. Once laws are passed, they just don't go away. In 2000, we attempted to eliminate 141 Florida boards and commissions out of the more than 800 that existed at that time. Only 10 were eliminated and the legislature created another 31. Clearly, we put the effort in the loss column!
It's hard to describe how much pressure was brought to bear to defeat this effort. The people with a special interest in defending the status quo put all of their energy into blocking reform, while those with a general interest in better government and free competition had less incentive to commit the time or resources to the fight.
Somehow, we need to change the structure of government to require the systematic review of rules and laws. Requiring regulations and statutes to "sunset" is one way to force legislatures and agencies to review whether they're still a public priority. Another productive approach is Senator Mark Warner's proposal requiring an agency to eliminate an old regulation as a condition to each new regulation.
A third suggestion would be to ban so-called "omnibus bills," legislation that sometimes run in to the hundreds and thousands of pages, and where appended items have nothing to do with the main subject of the law. Laws that throw in the kitchen sink are not comprehensible to anyone, including the unwitting legislators who vote for them. It's hard to make sense of a law that never made any sense in the first place. It's also hard to hold political leaders accountable if the laws they pass are so big that a vote for or against could mean many different things. Laws must be targeted so their effectiveness can be evaluated.
The job of political leaders is not only to pass new laws that make sense, but to make sure that old laws meet the current needs of our society. Getting political leaders to do this job, however, will require a major shift in our public priorities.
A postscript on the accretion of old law. A year after our failed boards and commission effort, I signed into law a bill allowing beer to be sold in any size under 32 ounces. For 36 years, the law required beer to be sold in 8,12, 16 and 32 ounces. Of the more than 4300 beer brands available in the US in 2000, only 772 brands could be sold in Florida. Now, Floridians can drink beer in almost any shape or size container. Let freedom ring!
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