All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1994

Passing Laws: Is Governing That Simple?

Mr. Banfield is owner of Banfield Analytical Services in Westmont, Illinois, specializing in writing, speaking, and analysis of financial, economic, and public-policy issues. Copyright © 1994 by Banfield Analytical Services.

Ask Americans what “governing” means, and you’ll evoke a wide variety of answers. A common response is that governing should mean protecting American liberty and property. But administration officials and Congressmen in Washington, D.C., have a different idea. To them, governing simply means passing legislation. The more legislation, the better they’re doing their job. It’s a simplistic view. But politicians go to great lengths to defend it.

It doesn’t matter, it seems, what the legislation is. It doesn’t matter that none of the politicians will ever read the entire piece of legislation they pass. Nor that, as is often the case, the law isn’t even completely written yet. It doesn’t matter that there are so many volumes of legislation that every single American is guilty of ignorance of the law (no excuse, of course).

And it doesn’t matter whether or not the legislation passed is really good for all American taxpayers and consumers. Indeed, in most cases, the legislation harms most citizens, through higher taxes and mandated costs, while lavishing huge benefits upon a particular group or special interest.

None of that matters. To many politicians, any legislation that gets passed is good.

That concept—that simply passing a law is good governing—is familiar to many folks. For example, every year or so, by October 1, Congress must approve a new budget for the government’s fiscal year. Also, by year-end the government has already reached its legal debt limit; Congress must also approve an increase in that limit. That way it can borrow more money to finance its ever-increasing spending.

But some Congressmen don’t like the details of the budget, or they propose raising the debt limit to a different level. They squabble over the particulars of the bill, delaying its passage. Amid the gridlock, a chorus of politicians from all sides cries that “We must come to a budget agreement so the American people understand that WE CAN GOVERN.” Politicians grandstand that failing to agree to a budget or to pass some law is a “failure” of government. “Americans will lose faith in our ability to govern” is a common refrain.

No Government?

Politicians defend that idea by enhancing the drama with scare tactics. For example, without a budget, the government cannot operate. Politicians warn that if the government cannot function, “vital services that protect Americans” will be shut down. Some politicians even try to scare the public by telling the media that things like school milk programs or children’s vaccines or “the safety of our streets” will be threatened.

Blurring the distinction between the government sector and the market sector, politicians warn that “The country will be at a standstill.” That’s not true, of course. The rest of the country will continue operating just fine. But the drama reinforces the politicians’ point: they must keep passing more legislation, or else cities will crumble and America will fall.

Simply, Congress believes that the more legislation it passes, the better it is doing for “America.” That’s their job, isn’t it?

The Other Option

But surely things aren’t that simple. Many citizens and voters are coming to realize that government has passed far too many pieces of legislation. Americans could dearly stand a comprehensive repeal of most of the legislation and regulations passed in the last 30 or 60 years. Indeed, many believe the country would operate a lot better without all that legislation, and all the regulations that flow from it. A few basic laws against murder, theft, assault, rape, arson, and fraud are sufficient to protect American lives and property.

To end that “legislating-is-governing” mentality, perhaps we can persuade Congressmen to consider another option. Maybe good governing—at least occasionally—means passing no legislation. Or, better, a wise legislator might try considering the advice of many economists and policy analysts. Try correcting the problem at hand by repealing existing regulations that caused it. It’s always better to remove existing restraints than add new ones.

Politicians could gain points with voters by pointing out how many new laws they killed by arguing against new legislation. Facing voters back in the home district, the elected official could pitch: “I saved consumers in my district $100 million dollars by repealing twelve pieces of onerous and harmful legislation. I prevented the silent but deadly destruction of thousands of jobs by repealing a dozen harmful regulations.”

The crowd cheers. Our lives are simpler. And governing is good again.

  • Mr. Banfield is owner of Banfield Analytical Services in Westmont, Illinois. As an adjunct policy analyst for the Heartland Institute, he has testified before the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, The Illinois General Assembly, and a U.S. Republican Hearing on health-care reform.