The most politically effective moment of Biden’s recent State-of-the-Union Address was the off-script interchange occasioned by his poke at Republicans about undermining Social Security and Medicare. He pointed out—accurately—that some in the GOP (particularly Sen. Rick Scott) favor sunsetting all federal laws and requiring them to be debated and renewed/revised/eliminated every five years. Paul Krugman, with whose NYT column I usually agree, chimed in a little later with a general attack on sunsetting legislation. I think they’re both wrong.
First, and just to ensure that I never will get elected to national political office, let me break with the Dems and stand firmly atop the “third rail” of US politics by saying that Social Security needs major reforms. Indeed, it’s a great example of why Krugman’s aversion to sunsetting is so wrong (but more of that later).
Set up in the ‘30s as part of a broad restructuring of US social policy, Social Security has been a great success overall and should continue in a modified form. Besides cleaning up any number of administrative problems, there are three major changes I would: 1) getting rid of the “trust fund” illusion, 2) deferring eligibility dates, and 3) stop subsidizing rich folks too.
You can argue with the above list, both conceptually and as to specific remedies, but the underlying point is that times change and the law needs to change with it.
This leads to sunsetting. The problem is inertia: political inertia. Krugman is right to point out that our current politics are dysfunctional, but even when things were running more smoothly, there was a lot of “kick-the-can-down-the-road” going on. Politics is like that. Changing circumstance in the real world don’t get attention in the legislative process very well. We need to turn up the heat on our legislators to pay attention and update our laws and policies. Being an old telecommunications policy guy, I always had to shake my head when I saw the interminable debates on what turned out to be the Telecom Act of 1996—which had been first introduced in 1976! By the time it was finally enacted, it brought US telecom policy firmly into the 1970s. Despite the bewildering change in technology and industries since then, there’s been no real updating of the law in that area since, too! Sen. Tim Kaine has been championing a repeal of the Iraq War authorization legislation (from 2001) for similar reasons. The list of overdue updating and expirations is way too long.
But even if I think we need an automatic relook at legislation, I don’t agree with Sen. Scott’s proposal to sunset every federal statute after five years. That’s way too short. If you look at the US Code (the compilation of federal statutes) it’s 6550 pages long. Requiring a rewrite of each provision under Scott’s timeline would be 1300 pages/year on top of new legislative ideas, plus the appropriations process. It’s too much. It would turn into a superficial, pro forma charade and further undermine the seriousness with which we should take our laws. In addition, there is not much change in most areas of law within a five-year time-frame. So, other than the mechanical indexing of various dollar-level provisions (e.g., moving the trigger levels for a 10% or a 20% tax rate to keep up with inflation), there’s not much point. (Of course, you could argue that Scott’s entire proposal was political theater; performative legislative posturing to the right-wing “government is too big and over-regulatory” mentality.)
Instead, I’d like a 20-year sunset. That’s enough time to see the social/economic changes in the world and adapt the legislative model to them. It’s not too much of an annual burden on the legislative process. It would prevent the egregious examples of obsolete legislation and might spur some affected folks or congressional staffers to take a fresh look at what’s on the books.
Yes, there’s a risk—even on a 20-year cycle—of the process falling into routine and ritual renewal; but it would be a better use of Congressional time than any number of silly and performative actions that they spend their energy on now.
Krugman argues that a five-year sunset would undermine stability: the important ability of citizens to rely on what the law is and be able to plan one’s life accordingly. He’s right of course, but a longer-term cycle would obviate much of that and there is something important (if intangible) to be gained from the respect due to keeping laws current.
Even with regard to the particular political hot-button du jour—Social Security and Medicare—it’s the politics (i.e., the fear of political backlash) that keeps them on the books, not the formal lack of a sunset. Indeed, as I argued above, there’s too much stability.
At the end of the day, there is no legal limit on what Congress can do (other than the Constitution); so, regardless of whether they call Social Security a “trust fund,” they could still flush the whole thing in a week. Instead, if you added a constitutional sunset requirement, you could insert an exception that long-term commitments be honored (sort of like the current clause protecting the integrity of contracts), even if it’s likely to be a set-up for litigation on the details.
Krugman also bemoans the partisan and other legislative bickering that characterizes too much of our legislative process these days. He’s right that sunsetting would increase the opportunities for grandstanding (a la the debt-ceiling), but the underlying problematic attitudes will remain, regardless, and will find some situation they can hype up to generate press attention and re-election funds.
Ultimately, sunsetting would reflect a recognition that we shouldn’t be trapped by the past. We (whoever is around currently) should be making the decisions as to how we want to live; not the legislators of 30-50-80 years ago. Reliance on old laws is part of a broader disengagement with our political culture. We’ve gotten lazy and we need to step up.