Politics & Policy

Comprehensive Bills Don’t Work

For more-effective government, think small.

Americans think big. Only the U.S. has sent a man to the moon. We build massive sports stadiums, where we cheer grand slams and long-bomb passes. And we guzzle so many giant coffees that Starbucks had to invent new words for them. “Trenta,” for example, means 31 ounces, a step up from “venti.” But there’s one place where the need for size has gotten out of hand: Washington, D.C.

Consider spending. Earlier this year, Japan announced a massive stimulus plan. The total bill was estimated at $225 billion. Amateurs. When President Obama launched a “stimulus” bill in 2009 it came with an official price tag of $789 billion — more than three times as large as Japan’s. And a more realistic preliminary estimate of the cost of Obama’s stimulus came in at $3.27 trillion. Now that’s a deficit-spending bill.

This “money is no object” approach adds up quickly. That’s why our federal debt now totals more than $17 trillion, more than any country has ever owed. Just another way Americans are boldly going where no man has gone before.

But lawmakers are piling up more than big debts. They’ve also fallen in love with enacting big, “comprehensive” laws.

Obamacare is the perfect example of this. It stretched across hundreds of pages and aimed to regulate about one-sixth of the entire economy. As an added inducement, lawmakers were told they should pass the bill even though they hadn’t read it. “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy,” then-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi famously said in 2010.

Not surprisingly, Obamacare is an unfolding nightmare. States are struggling to set up health-care exchanges. Cost estimates keep climbing, while the number of people who will supposedly benefit from the law is declining. No wonder a Democratic senator calls Obamacare a “huge train wreck coming down.” Obamacare is the opposite of “too big to fail.” It’s too big to succeed.

Another recent example is the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, passed in 2010. The goal was audacious: to prevent another banking crisis like the one that rocked the economy in 2008. But the law covers far more than just banking. It imposes broad regulations on huge swaths of the economy.

But its overreach is causing problems. As of February 1, “only 37 percent of some 400 required rules overall have been finalized,” Diane Katz and Tom Toth report. And if the bureaucrats can’t keep up, imagine how the business people (who must comply with these unclear directives under penalty of law) are faring. No wonder our economic recovery is struggling.

There’s a pattern here, and we see it repeated in the ongoing debate over immigration reform. In June, the Senate passed a 1,200-page immigration bill on a Monday afternoon. Lawmakers had received their final copies of the measure only two days before, on Saturday. That timeline would be tight even if the lawmakers were trying only to rename some post offices, instead of to rearrange policies affecting millions of people.

Yes, the United States needs to fix our broken immigration system. Yet the better approach would be to break the issue down into small problems and write focused bills that solve each problem. With each smaller problem that is solved, the larger problem would itself become smaller.

When it comes to lawmaking, bigger isn’t better. Instead of trying to do many things at once and failing at all of them, lawmakers could accomplish narrow goals and improve the economic and political climate along the way.

There’s another bonus: Bills that are short and simple don’t leave room for powerful interests to slip in special favors for themselves.

Big interests have the lobbyists to shape the big bills, inserting provisions that help them eliminate competition and harm the rest of us. Under Obamacare, these special favors were so blatant they even had names: the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and “Gator Aid.” Such deals, and other special favors, are problematic. And it can take years for people to learn of them.

It’s possible for the federal government to succeed at big things, such as Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase or winning World War II. But it’s clear that the best way to pass effective legislation is to think small.

Limited government is the key to more-effective government, while big government tends to worsen the problems it attempts to solve. It’s a lesson that lawmakers should consider, and it may even help them keep their jobs.

— Matthew Spalding is the Heritage Foundation’s vice president of American studies and director of its B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.

Matthew Spalding is the associate vice president and dean of educational programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Chair in Constitutional Studies.


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