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No One Knows How Many Laws We Have or What They Mean

By: Frank Worley-Lopez - May 8, 2014, 8:41 am

Español In January, around 40,000 new laws — federal, state, and local — took effect across the United States. Even though that in itself is a large enough number that no one could possibly keep track of, it pales in comparison to the total number of laws on the books nationwide. How many is that, you ask? No one really knows.

The US Justice Department, the agency tasked with enforcing criminal laws at the federal level, tried to find this out in the 1980s. They failed. As of 1982, there were at least 50 different titles and 23,000 pages of federal criminal law alone. That doesn’t include regulations, non-criminal laws, appropriations, civil laws, or any of the myriad of state and local laws.

The Justice Department, then under President Ronald Reagan, tried to highlight the fact that serious reform of the US criminal code was desperately needed. They were, however, unable to convince Congress to change it. There have been many subsequent attempts to try and grasp at an exact number, but all have failed.

What’s wrong with this picture?

For starters, no one at any level of government knows all of the laws; not the police, not the judges who decide the law, not prosecutors who put people in jail, with the help of those same judges, and not even the lawyers who defend the accused. Not one of them know every aspect of every law. So, if you ever face a criminal or civil trial, have faith; there is a chance there is a law out there the judge doesn’t know about that you may be able to use to your advantage. Then again, there may be one that they can use against you. The Heritage Foundation calls it “overcriminalization.

The fact is that, without knowing it, you or your children could very easily be arrested, tried, and convicted for a crime you didn’t even know existed. Is this the work of a free society?

With all of this in mind, maybe it’s time we consider some legislative amendments to our Constitution. Here are a few suggestions:

  • All laws passed by Congress, the states, or local jurisdictions must apply to the legislators who passed them, and to the executive who signed them into law.
  • The legislative bodies throughout the United States must keep a full accounting of all laws on the books and make those available to the public electronically and on demand.
  • All laws must automatically expire every 10 years. In order for a law to be extended for another 10 year period, they must be read aloud and debated again for at least one full hour, and each extension may only last one 10 year period.
  • Each lawmaker in every legislative house may only submit one bill for consideration each session, except during times of war or a declared emergency at which time the leadership in the respective house or council may add additional laws as needed. These laws may only remain in effect for the duration of the crisis, or for a period of five years, whichever comes first. Representatives who submit more than one bill a year will lose 10 percent of of their pay for the year. Those who submit more than three bills per year will lose all compensation.
  • The content of each bill must be germane to the topic of the bill. The passage of more than 20 bills in any legislative session in Congress, 10 in state houses, or five in any city council, county, or parish government will cause all house members and staff to forfeit their entire compensation for that session.

I’m no lawyer, but I’m sure with a few minor edits these five legislative restrictions could easily be added to the Constitution and bring legislative houses back down to earth. It would also lead to the automatic repeal of decades old, arcane laws and force Congress to reconsider things like Obamacare, Social Security, the FDA, and many other agencies and programs that desperately need attention. Further, it might finally give us all a chance to know what the laws actually say and mean.

There’s only one problem: this kind of change would require 38 state legislatures to approve the amendment. Something tells me they won’t be overly enthusiastic to do so.