Law & the Courts

Every Law Should Have an Expiration Date

(Lane Erickson/Dreamstime)

Milk goes bad. So do laws, sometimes. Unfortunately, most laws stick around long after they’ve gone bad.

Over the past several months, the nation had a healthy discussion about the extent of the government’s snooping on Americans’ electronic communications. This contentious debate led to changes in the law. Congress actually did something useful.

Why? Not because our elected representatives suddenly found their mojo, but rather because Section 215 of the Patriot Act — the section authorizing bulk collection of data and roving wiretaps — had an expiration date, which forced the issue. Instead of the eternal life bestowed upon most laws, these controversial provisions were subject to a “sunset clause,” which means they automatically expire unless specifically reauthorized. This meant Congress could not simply ignore Americans’ negative reactions to the revelation of massive federal surveillance — legislators had to actually do something rather than nothing, as is always their preference.

In a few more weeks, we’ll be debating whether the Export-Import Bank, a corporate-welfare program, should continue, and on a few occasions each year, the nation is forced to confront our exploding national debt. Why? Again, because the laws establishing the Ex-Im Bank and the Treasury Department’s power to borrow money were designed to expire unless specifically reauthorized by Congress.

If all of our elected officials have expiration dates, why shouldn’t their work product?

These forced conversations and confrontations are good things. But they would never happen if the authors of the laws in question hadn’t included sunset provisions.

Unfortunately, most laws do not include such sunset provisions, and regulations almost never do, which means the vast majority of laws and regulations that currently govern the lives of Americans were put into place by previous generations. In some cases, we are governed by regulations that are 70 or 80 years old. How much sense does that make? Why are we still governed by rules put into place during the New Deal, or even earlier? How similar is today’s economy to the economy of 1934 — the year several major current laws, programs, regulatory structures, and even cabinet agencies were created?

Granting so many provisions eternal life means we are piling up taxes, laws, and regulations that are outdated, ineffective, redundant, sometimes contradictory, and otherwise simply past their prime. This imposes costs on the economy, complicates the judiciary, grows the government, and creates an increasingly incomprehensible bureaucratic morass that innocent businesses and citizens must attempt to navigate.

Surely, every generation should have a say in the laws that govern it. Even the drafters of the U.S. Constitution recognized the need to regularly update governing structures, which is why they created not one but several means for amending the Constitution. Yet the momentum needed to pass new amendments has been hard to come by in recent decades — our current 23-year amendment drought is the third-longest in American history.

At both the state and federal level, every new law and regulation should have an expiration date. Why not give every new law or regulation a five-year sunset, and every new agency a ten-year sunset? Wouldn’t it be a good idea for every law, regulation, and agency to be forced to justify its existence every once in a while? If all of our elected officials have expiration dates, why shouldn’t their work product?

Insisting on sunset clauses would be a significant structural improvement in the function and efficiency of government at all levels, and would protect Americans from an ever-spreading snarl of outdated laws and regulations, administered by a government incompetent enough to allow them to accumulate in the first place.

Limiting government means limiting the lifespans of its products: taxes, laws, regulations, and bureaucracies.

— Tom Giovanetti is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI).

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