THE BLOG
03/15/2013 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Extremism Is Okay, Thoughtlessness Isn't

Even in their "best" years -- the times when they manage to convince their colleagues to support measures that benefit their districts, themselves, and their values -- members of Congress need to get very used to rejection. Most members introduce dozens of bills each year with little hope that any of them will reach the president's desk. The pessimism, of course, is warranted. Only about four percent of all bills proposed become law as freestanding measures and an enormous chuck of these are post office naming bills. Quite simply, much of the business of almost all legislators is to be frustrated and thwarted. Many members and their staffs -- in moments of candor -- will concede that most bills are "impossible." These measures get introduced to make a statement, please a constituent, or provoke debate. And this is fine, even good: the act of introducing measures that most Americans would rightly find extreme, indeed, is an important part of legislative work. But it's not fine -- or good -- when legislators introduce bills that don't seem to reflect any thought at all. And that's just what one New Jersey Democrat has done.

A defense of (legislative) extremism first: plenty of "extreme" bills get put before Congress each year. Right now, a bill to nationalize the entire health care system: (Obamacare on steroids) can count over 30 co-sponsors as can a proposed law that that would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or imminent danger to a mother's life. Neither of these measures has a ghost of a chance of becoming law but they're still important indicators of where members of Congress stand. They're also useful ways of remembering that sometimes denied positions are actually held by people in both parties: the first makes it clear that many people who supported President Obama's healthcare reform bills actually want to do what some of my fellow conservatives say and have the government run the whole healthcare system. The second makes it clear that some pro-lifers -- and I'm pro-life myself -- take things too far. Bad ideas as they may be, furthermore, these ideas are both feasible: some countries do outlaw abortion in absolutely all cases and several (although fewer than many on the left seem to think) do have truly nationalized healthcare systems. Both are bad ideas but making them still serves a legitimate purpose.

On the other hand, there is a problem with members of Congress who float measures that literally couldn't work as advertised any circumstances. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires has done just that with a bill he just dropped. (It doesn't seem to have a short title yet but a previous measure he introduced was called the "Taxpayer Protection Act.") The bill promises to reduce property insurance costs in disaster prone areas but wouldn't do according to most who have looked at it. Among other things, a huge coalition of taxpayer, environmental, and insurance groups that rarely see eye to eye on other issues has come out against it. But one doesn't just have to look at its problems. The bill is also a failure on its merits. Like a similar measure introduced by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) earlier in the year, the bill promises to lower insurance rates by concentrating risk with a government sponsored entity. Since private markets already spread risk around the world and all insurance markets -- other things being equal -- can charge lower rates when risk gets spread more broadly, concentrating risk under federal aegis will actually mean that prices will have to go up if the program is to have any chance of even breaking even. Oops. And it gets worse. At a press conference he held earlier this week, Sires said that the bill would add a surcharge to all premiums the federal government would charge to pay for property mitigation (a decent enough cause in itself) thereby making the premiums even higher. The bill, therefore, seems likely to do one of two things: produce a program that sells government-backed insurance that nobody in their right mind would ever buy or put taxpayers on the hook for just about every beach house in the country. The second possibility seems a lot more likely. And neither is decent public policy.