Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The least productive Congress in history?

Several articles have been written about how the current 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive in history. But what does this really mean?

The articles and funny men like John Oliver lament this lack of productivity. It appears that they think that Congress is only useful if it is passing laws that restrict somebody from doing something, because that is what most laws do. Sure every once in a while Congress will repeal a law that is no longer necessary (if it ever was...) but that kind of legislation is rare. If you think that the objective function of Congress is to maximize legislation then I am glad to see an unproductive Congress. Most of the laws enacted today benefit some people at the expense of others. They do not promote a competent or efficient justice system, help provide basic infrastructure, or protect us from foreign enemies. Instead they micro-manage our everyday affairs, waste taxpayer money on special interests, and start wars we have little reason to be engaged in (oh wait, Obama doesn't need legislation for that)

Unfortunately I think that the lack of enacted legislation does not mean that there are less restrictions on individuals. I have not researched this thoroughly but it would not surprise me if the legislation that is passed today is larger and more complex than legislation in the past. For example, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill is 3,200 pages long and regulators are still writing the rules even though the law was passed in 2010. Obamacare has approximately 10,000 pages of regulations associated with it and counting. Even though these are only two enacted bills, the amount of actual regulation associated with them is enormous. If some people are worried that the 113th Congress is not doing enough to restrict our freedom, please don't worry so much. This Congress is following its predecessor's footsteps nicely. Here is a useful website created by some scholars at the Mercatus Center that shows the amount of regulations passed by various government agencies.

But again, I have to go back to the way news organizations judge a Congress' productivity. The purpose of the legislature is to improve the country, not to simply pass bills. If the standard is legislation that improves the country as opposed to legislation that results from rent-seeking behavior then almost all Congress's have been unproductive. Counting the number of laws enacted is a naive, uninformative way of gauging the productivity of Congress and the people who spout this nonsense should be ignored.

Reasonable people will disagree as to what improves the country, but I think that it is simple laws that create a competent and efficient justice system, protect our borders, and provide some basic infrastructure. Other than that, Congress should leave people alone and let them voluntarily interact with one another. The great Adam Smith stated this in The Wealth of Nations:

"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things."

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