Saturday, December 17, 2011

Legislative Bundling: Ho Ho Woe

There are no diamonds in these lumps of coal.

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This time of year many children look forward to Santa's bundle of joy. For voters, however, Congress continues to deliver bundles of woe. This week Congress was able to agree on a spending bill to keep the government running.  But action on payroll taxes and unemployment benefits was delayed because some members wanted to include language on an oil pipeline. Regardless of your position on either issue, bundling two unrelated issues into one legislative action makes no sense – unless you're Congress.

So why does Congress bundle laws? From my point of view there are two reasons: to hide provisions that couldn't be enacted on their own and to hold legislation hostage to political gamesmanship. Doing away with legislative bundling is an important step in attacking waste, fraud, and abuse. But you won't hear Congress discuss bundling because they do it for their own benefit and aggrandizement.

Only Congress can create legislation. The President's role in the process is to approve or veto laws as written by Congress. The President can encourage Congress to craft legislation in such a way that it will be signed into law, and there are members of Congress that will do the President's bidding. But it is Congress that ultimately controls the process and the product.

One argument for bundling is workload, but that rings hollow. First, there are already too many laws and provisions on the books. The Financial Times commented that the "lunatic complexity of the U.S. tax code is proof of legislative incompetence." Bundling adds complexity and strife. Second, Congress shouldn't feel compelled to legislate solely to appear active and mustn't act solely for political gain. Instead, new laws should be enacted judiciously and antiquated laws retired immediately.

So I propose that Congress curtail its legislative activism. A big step in that direction is to reduce the number of committees and subcommittees so as to produce more concise, coordinated laws that remain true to each committee's charter and focused on single areas.

If you want to change the tax code, change it. If you want energy diversification, get on with it. But have the courage and wisdom to craft laws that stand on their own – rather than cobble together elves and goblins that sneak down the chimney.