Congress is broken. Everyone knows it — Congress enjoys barely half the approval rating of President Barack Obama. The sinister influence of campaign contributions is part of the problem — the failure to regulate Wall Street derivatives can be traced to huge contributions by financial service firms such as American International Group and Fannie Mae.

But Congress lacks even the idea of making sense of the laws it has passed. It keeps piling on new obligations without revising the old ones. Congress might as well be a huge concrete block, crushing society with laws that accumulated over decades.
Obsolete laws waste several hundred billion dollars. For example:

Too Many Laws,
Too Many Lawyers

In Each American family will pay an extra $200 this year because of a law (the Davis-Bacon Act) that fixes wages on federally funded projects at more than 20 percent higher than market wages. Legions of federal bureaucrats dutifully decide, county by county in more than 3,100 counties, what workers in more than 100 job categories must by law be paid. Today in Monmouth County, N.J., a “terrazzo setter” on a federally funded project must be paid $39.68 per hour, plus another $23.25 in benefits. That’s the law. Then the contractor must dutifully fill out all the paperwork to prove it.

In Corporations abuse the privilege at least as much as labor — every year the farm bill requires payments of more than $10 billion to
corporate farmers in totally unnecessary subsidies.

Where did these laws come from? Nobody alive had anything to do with them. Davis-Bacon was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. Its original purpose was to prevent local firms from underbidding large national firms. Davis-Bacon then evolved into a kind of windfall bonus for unions. The farm bill was passed in 1933, to help starving farmers at a time when 25 percent of the country lived on farms. Now 2 percent live on farms, and the subsidies go to huge conglomerates.

Welcome to Washington. Laws get passed but almost never get repealed. Like dragons guarding a treasure, the special interests will do anything to prevent anyone from taking their law away.

Leadership is practically impossible in these conditions. All the laws piled up act as giant roadblocks to action. Obama campaigned on an idea of stimulating the economy with new “green” infrastructure projects such as new transmission lines. But mandated environmental reviews — basically an exercise in no-pebble-left-unturned — mean it will be the year 2020 before vitally important transmission lines can be built. By contrast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a matter of months was hiring millions to build new projects. All the accumulated law — more than 100 million words of binding federal law and rules — virtually guarantee failure of our public goals.

Federal law urgently needs a spring cleaning. All those layers of legal concrete need to be scraped away and replaced by streamlined laws that are actually designed to meet the needs of society in the 21st century.

But Congress is hopeless, at least unless the public rises up and forces it to do its job. There are so many special interests crowding around the public trough that congressmen can’t even see the public interest, much less persuade 218 representatives and 60 senators to abandon their particular special interests and actually reorganize laws to meet the needs of broader society. All the accumulated laws have immobilized Congress.

Americans must rise up and force Congress to act. That’s how anything important happens — whether it was the civil rights movement, or the campaigns against smoking or drunken driving. Civic leaders around the country must band together into a Coalition to Fix Congress.

What needs to be done

1: Restore the authority of judges to draw legal boundaries so that people have confidence that justice will be reliable.
2: Replace the vocabulary of rights with the goal of balance.
3: Liberate teachers and principals from legal rules and processes. Bureaucracy can’t teach.
4: Restore responsibility to government by giving authority to identifiable officials.
Provide checks and balances for official decisions up the hierarchy of responsibility, not generally by legal proceedings by dissatisfied individuals. The goal is the common good, not the lowest common denominator.
5: Revive personal accountability. Your freedom hinges on the freedom of others to make judgments about you.
6: Decentralize public service to the extent feasible. Citizenship requires active involvement in the community.
7: Organize a national civic leadership to propose a radical overhaul of government. Washington is paralyzed and must be recodified. This requires outside leadership.

The coalition could act like a “shadow government,” developing proposals to clean house area by area. Think of “base-closing commissions,” which did the work of deciding which military bases to close precisely because Congress lacked the political ability to choose among bases in different states.

Obama seems committed to the need for “change we can believe in.” But he too is mired in the legal concrete of Washington. Even the smallest change requires Herculean effort. Instead of struggling on specific reforms, let’s demand a broader overhaul to restore the conditions for leadership. The goal is not to change our public goals, but to make it possible to achieve them.


Philip K. Howard, a lawyer, is chair of Common Good (, and author of the new book “Life Without Lawyers.”