Julian Sanchez in ReasonOnline: Legislative cooling off period (11/23/04)

This great piece from a libertarian perspective connects Hayek’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy” with the need for a legislative cooling off period. It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing.

“De Omnibus Disputandum: Who was the last person to know all the ingredients in the pork?”
by Julian Sanchez
Nov. 23, 2004

“I have no earthly idea how it got in there” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) explained on Face the Nation, “but, obviously, somebody is going to know, and accountability will be carried out.”
He was referring to a provision lurking on page 1,112 of the 3,200 page, $388 billion omnibus appropriations bill passed this weekend, which would have empowered appropriations committee chairmen or their “agents” to examine Americans’ tax returns.


To some extent, the problem is a pure function of the state’s size. The larger a government becomes, the more it presumes to dabble in economic minutiae, as F.A. Hayek famously argued, the more policy will come to steered by an unaccountable few, as the inherent complexity of the subjects of legislation immunize them from public scrutiny or debate. The insight was scarcely original to Hayek; German sociologist Robert Michels had hit on it as early as 1911 in his Political Parties, where he dubbed it “the iron law of oligarchy.”

Now—especially as legislators more jealously guard their pork-dispensing prerogatives, rather than letting grant disbursing agencies fill in the details down the line—the effect of the “iron law” is so amplified that even the oligarchs (and the oligarchs among the oligarchs on the conference committees) aren’t sure what’s going on. One staffer plugs in some language downloaded from the Internet at the last minute, while another makes some handwritten adjustments to this or that dollar amount. Law is made on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies collude by night.

One measure that could help would be a kind of legislative cooling-off period, some minimum period of time (a week?) that a bill may be debated, or at least read, between the time it leaves committee in final form and the time it can be put to a vote. These days, we wouldn’t even need Reagan’s legion of 300 at OMB. The same distributed, pajama-clad legions who pounced with such alacrity upon the suspicious kerning of Dan Rather’s bogus memos could locate wasteful (or, as in this case, privacy-invading) provisions—and here’s the novel part—:before they were locked into law. It’s a safety measure so simple, obvious, and likely to be effective that there’s no need to worry about its ever being implemented.