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Beltway sclerosis

It’s tres chic these days to lament Washington partisanship along with the ensuing gridlock and congressional inertia. But such hand-wringing ignores the nation’s robust bureaucratic apparatus and the energetic regulatory state it administers.

In fact, writes Philip K. Howard in an April 2 commentary for The Wall Street Journal, “The buildup of federal law since World War II has been massive – about 15 fold.” And that, he posits, shackles American competitiveness, undermines infrastructure development and stifles entrepreneurialism. “Bad laws trap daily decisions in legal concrete and are largely responsible for the U.S. government’s clunky ineptitude.”

Mr. Howard, an attorney who came to prominence as author of the 1994 book “The Death of Common Sense,” which addressed the pitfalls of administrative and legal tyranny, makes a compelling case that many of the nation’s statutes are outdated or counterproductive and should be reconsidered.

Mr. Howard directs his scorn on a handful of examples, including farm subsidies and labor regulations that date to the Depression, education mandates that flood local districts in costly paperwork at the expense of classroom instruction and the complexity of federal health-care rules.

In that sense, he indeed bemoans congressional gridlock – but not from the perspective that the country needs Congress to pass more laws. Instead, he advocates for “clearing out obsolete law” and for pushing the legislative branch to perform “its constitutional job to make sure that our laws actually work.”

That might be anathema to many progressives, who seem to worry more about intentions than consequences. But it’s a refreshing prescription for real progress and change – and government that works. And it would also help Congress reclaim control over an unelected bureaucracy to which it has ceded too much power and authority.

We’ve long argued that Nevada would benefit from a statute requiring state lawmakers to repeal two existing statutes for every new law imposed. Mr. Howard takes that idea up a notch. He advocates a constitutional amendment mandating that every federal law and regulation with a budgetary impact sunset after a certain period of time unless Congress acts specifically to renew it.

To avoid a catch-all blanket autopilot renewal gimmick, the amendment would also “prohibit re-authorization until there has been a public review and recommendation by an independent commission of citizens.”

Of course, elected officials are highly averse to any proposal that would either limit their power or force them to address difficult issues (think: term limits). Mr. Howard’s proposal will be a hard sell at a time when those on opposite sides of the aisle can’t agree on whether the sun will come up tomorrow.

But if it generates discussion and debate about how best to treat the advancing beltway sclerosis, so much the better. And perhaps the country – currently in the throes of a tumultuous election campaign dominated by voters fed up with broken government – now nears the point where the reality of not acting overwhelms the political inclination to avoid hard choices.

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