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« As If We Didn't Have Enough To Worry About | Main | Jobs, Not Wealth, Part Deaux »

Federal Sunset

Here's my entry to Eugene Volokh's contest--a sunset amendment.

"All laws passed by the Congress shall remain in effect for no more than ten calendar years from the date of passage, at or prior to which time they must be repassed, or expire. All federal laws in existence at the time of passage of this amendment shall have staggered expiration dates, as a function of their age on the books, according to the formula, time-to-expire = 35 x (year-of-amendment-passage - 1787)/(year-of-amendment-passage - year-of-law-passage) + 5. Repassage of all existing laws will also have a lifetime of ten years."

I've put some (but not a tremendous amount of) thought into this. The idea is to make the whole mess go away eventually, but you wouldn't want to have a single date of expiration for all existing law--it would simply overwhelm the system. What I'm hoping for here is something that whelms the system only slightly, but enough to keep them so busy renewing important laws that they won't have time to renew antiquated or bad ones, or to cause new mischief.

The formula has the earliest phaseouts (of the most recent laws) occur in five years, while the oldest laws (some of which, given their age, might have actually been good ones), can hang on as long as forty. The last sentence may be redundant, because it's implied by the first sentence, but I want to make it clear that once law existing prior to amendment passage has been reauthorized, it has no special status among laws passed later--it is simply treated as any other newly-passed law.

I also suggested repealing the sixteenth and seventeenth amendments.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 08, 2002 01:34 PM
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Outstanding! Sunset provisions are a great idea.

Posted by oj at May 8, 2002 02:07 PM

Here! Here!

Posted by Dr. Clausewitz at May 8, 2002 03:27 PM

Great idea, but having worked for elected politicians quite a bit, I would tweak it just a little: I'd add that the laws could be reviewed and repealed prior to the expiration date, as deemed appropriate, or you'll have people saying you can't repeal this, it has 2 or 12 or 20 more years to go - even if the law sucks.

Posted by susanna at May 8, 2002 04:03 PM

There's nothing in the language to prevent repeal before the law's due date. Though, I suppose someone might try to say that the repeal itself had the time limit on it...

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 8, 2002 04:17 PM

I would also include all government agencies be subject to review as well. There are quite a few I can think of off the top of my head that served their purpose a long time ago (Tennessee Valley Authority, etc.).

Posted by Sandra Miller at May 8, 2002 11:35 PM

If their enabling legislation disappeared, the agencies themselves would as well. In fact, the debate about whether to renew legislation would often be a de facto review of the agency so enabled.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 9, 2002 07:35 AM

Hearty agreement except for the 17th Amendment.

What's wrong with electing Senators instead
of having legislatures appoint them per
Art. 1, Sec. 3[1]?

Making the sunset binding on states could be
done expressly in the amendment too. But, maybe
that could cause some movement on the hustings
for repeal -- States rights afficianados and all

Posted by Quinbus Flestrin at May 9, 2002 12:46 PM

Electing Senators has made us less of the Republic that the founders envisioned. Senators aren't supposed to represent the people, at least in the original formulation. They were supposed to look out for the interests of the states themselves.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 9, 2002 12:59 PM

Oh, and I would not want it to apply to the states. Let them do their own experiments.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 9, 2002 12:59 PM

Whoops, you need to swap the numerator and denominator-

Expiration = 35*(amend-law)/(amend-1787) +5

The other way around you'd get large lifetimes for more recent laws.

(Yes, I *did* enter the equation in a spreadsheet to verify the shape of the curve.)

Best thing about the idea is that it would keep 'em so busy hopping to renew laws that they'd have little opportunity to perpetrate new ones.

Posted by Doug Jones at May 9, 2002 08:27 PM


Good thing I have a non-recovering engineer handy to check my math...

Yes, keeping them too busy keeping the old ones to pass new ones is a large part of the intent.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 9, 2002 08:31 PM

One problem with sunset provisions is that there's an easy way out, a blanket reauthorization of all about-to-sunset laws.

Such a reauthorization would likely become part of the unanimous consent procedure.

That procedure is one of the most frightening things I've ever seen. The floor of the relevant chamber is empty except for someone presiding, a couple of members, a clerk of said chamber and usually one of the member's staffers. One of the members says ", I'd like to move for unanimous consent on ", and at that point the other member interrupts with "I waive the reading and move for immediate approval." The presiding member then says "so ordered". With those two fragments and a sentence, legislation is passed.

It's a mill - the staffer usually has the next piece of legislation in the first member's hands before the second member finishes. (I'm not convinced that the second member or even the presiding member is always even present as CSPAN doesn't necessarily show anyone but the first member.)

Posted by Andy Freeman at May 10, 2002 08:02 AM

Good point. Maybe we need to add another clause.

"Each expiring law must be renewed with its own unique legislation, and no law shall be passed that renews more than one expiring law."

A little redundant, and I'm sure that the language can be improved, but now, on to the next loophole...

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 10, 2002 08:30 AM

"Good point. Maybe we need to add another clause."

Maybe. Preventing legislative shenanigans to circumvent the Constitution is almost impossible. It's like trying to keep rats out of a wooden corncrib. Worst case they can chew their way through.

CA has sunset clauses in various statutes. There are whole lobbies, and even state agencies (but I repeat myself) trying to get them rescinded.

For examples fom a quick Google, just text search for "sunset" on these pages:

This patchwork is definitely better than the horror of a consent calendar, but it also shows how sunset provisions rile up the special interests and their shills, er, legislators.

Posted by at May 10, 2002 12:44 PM

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