This is a good analysis of Rick Scott’s Contract On America, observing that the parts that haven’t gotten a lot of attention are even worse than the working-class tax increases:
“All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” The idea of sunset laws has been around since the 1960s, proposed as a way of keeping government growth in check.
It’s a terrible idea for a number of reasons. Scott’s plan is to put one fifth of existing legislation through the policy process each year. By one very approximate estimate there are 30,000 laws on the books. By another estimate, Congress generates 4-6 million words of law in each session. How on earth would Congress process such an extraordinary increase in workload?
Have you seen anything that makes you think that Congress could agree to pass massive amounts of crucial legislation on a regular basis? The planet is burning (or as the Scott plan puts it “weather is always changing”) and we can’t pass the most basic climate change legislation. We can’t even get hearings for political appointees. Put Medicare up for renewal every five years? The Social Security Act?
Political systems can manage only so many complex decisions and conflict at a given point in time. Force them to do too much and they break down.
Agreeing that past legislation remains the status quo unless policymakers actively decided to change it is the only means of ensuring that the system does not become overloaded. What I am describing is the political theory of incrementalism, most associated with Charles Lindblom and Aaron Wildavsky. They argued that incrementalism was a good way of making policy, because it directed limited policymaker attention to a small number of issues at a given point in time, allowing them to give those policies deeper attention.
Sunset laws would also reduce policy predictability. This is bad for individuals, who can’t plan if Medicare will still exist for them in a couple of years. But it’s really bad for investors and businesses. You run a business and you don’t know if all of the policies that affect employment and regulation will still be there in a year or two? Not ideal for planning ahead or raising investments.
The fact that most laws couldn’t be passed again is, of course, the point. A return to the Gilded Age is what most Republican elites want — some are just honest about it, and some would prefer you not know about it until it’s too late: