Out of Control Policy Blog

Thereís nothing like a sunset

Government is like a chef with many dishes cooking, who, instead of carefully monitoring what he's already done, throws more and more dishes on the fire. Whether in DC or in the kitchen, the result will always be a mess.

Reason's Brian Doherty sees hope in killing bad laws with sunset provisions:

It's a potentially marvelous procedural weapon, one that is theoretically neutral in effect but holds forth an increased possibility of keeping momentary panics of a political season gone by from burdening the Republic for time immemorial ...

Of course, sunsetting won't always kill the laws or agencies it's aimed at. Even with widespread criticism from congressmen and the General Accounting Office, as Vern McKinley detailed in the pages of Regulation, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission managed to continually survive four-year sunsetting deadlines (with staffing falling right before deadlines, to show the CFTC's lean-meanness, and rising immediately thereafter).

Reason contributor Chris Mooney has looked skeptically on the history and efficacy of sunset laws on both the state level (lots of costs, little savings) and the federal one. In the Bush era of sunset mania, who can imagine a successful sunsetting of tax cuts, which will play as tax hikes? Or of "national security" legislation like the Patriot Act? Mooney grants, though, that the existence of the sunset provisions has the salutary effect of making the executive branch more solicitous of congressional inquiries about the Act, since it can't be blithely considered a fair accompli.

As with other procedural changes like balanced budget amendments and term limits, there is nothing stopping people from achieving the same results those rule changes seek, if people would buckle down, quaff a Mountain Dew or three, and just do it. Congress could, after all, just decide to go after obsolete or ill-considered legislation and tear it down, sunset provisions or no.

But we all know that isn't likely to happen often. Thus, sunsetting should be cheered, and encouraged as a feature for more future legislative restrictions on our liberty, because it makes it easier for legislators to do the right thing–by doing nothing. And usually, doing nothing is the very best we can hope for from them.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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