A shipload of salt to deal with this year's snow and ice on New Jersey's roads has been detained in legal limbo in Providence harbor, en route from Maine. The problem, detailed in today's New York Times, is that it's illegal for a foreign-owned vessel to ship goods from one U.S. port to another. (There's even a word for it, I learned. Domestic shipping is called "cabotage.") Now, there's nothing apparently wrong with the ship, which had just finished unloading its cargo in Maine and was available to take on the salt immediately. But an obscure 1920 law known as the Jones Act requires a U.S. ship, with a U.S. crew, on all domestic routes. There's a cottage merchant marine industry and union that exists just because of this law.
In this era of free markets, one would think that protectionist laws from almost 100 years ago would have gone the way of the horse and buggy. But laws have remarkable staying power (as we saw two weeks ago with the continuation of New Deal-era farm subsidies). The same onerous process for enacting a law applies to repealing it, with one additional, almost insurmountable, hurdle: The law now is surrounded by an army of special interests who will do anything to defend it (think campaign money and ad hominem attacks on would-be reformers). That's why, in the strange culture of Washington, repealing laws is so rare as to be almost unthinkable. Getting rid of old laws violates the laws of legislative physics.
Laws pile up, year after year, like sediment in the harbor. Society, meanwhile, is increasingly paralyzed. The U.S. now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business. This is because of thousands of laws like the Jones Act.
American democracy has a structural problem: There's no political or legal imperative to clean the stables. The accumulation is so bad that, as I argue elsewhere, America should initiate a series of commissions, area by area, to recommend what are known as "recodifications" of law -- new, simpler codes that reflect current national goals and priorities. Going forward, most regulatory programs should periodically "sunset," with an action-forcing mechanism (perhaps a constitutional amendment) that prevents Congress from simply re-enacting the same program in a midnight vote.
It's impossible to run a government, much less balance public budgets, under the weight of a hundreds of laws and programs that are obsolete in whole or part. The weight grows heavier every year. It will break, sooner or later. Perhaps it's time to start thinking about to fix it.
For more Howard's Daily posts, visit commongood.org/blog.