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Fareed speaks with Philip Howard, founder of Common Good and author of The Rule of Nobody, about the biggest barrier to political and legislative progress in the United States. This is an edited version of the transcript.
One of the things you've always said is that America is uniquely, perhaps because it's a society founded on law, has a reverence for law that has gone into a kind of a warped place, where our laws are so detailed that nobody has any judgment. Give a few examples of it.
So law is supposed to be a tool of democracy. Instead, democracy now just does whatever the law orders it to be, as if it's on autopilot. Here’s the example. Special-ed laws are very important, passed in 1975 because we had a history of locking away disabled children. Now that law has morphed into using up over 25 percent of the total K to 12 budget in this country. There's no money for gifted children, almost no money for pre-K education. Is that the right balance? Nobody is even asking the question. These laws just take a life of their own.
And the administrators don't have any leeway to use judgment.
Right. So there's no room for judgment. In 2009, we had an $800 billion stimulus plan. And the point of the plan sold by President Obama was to rebuild America's infrastructure. They came out with a five year report recently, where I tried to find how much was used for rebuilding the decrepit infrastructure of this country. Well, it turns out only 3 percent was spent to rebuild America's transportation infrastructure, because no one, not even the president of the United States, has authority to approve even the most obvious rebuilding jobs. We're not talking about power lines through virgin forests, we're talking about just fixing up an old bridge or...
Because you would have to waive certain environmental regulations...
…Yes. We have all these procedures. You have to do this review and if somebody complains, you have to go to there. If they don't think it's fair, it goes into litigation. And the density of the system of law can hardly be overestimated. I mean literally, you go in, you want to fix something, you've got to send out notices to fix a bridge in New Jersey, you have to send out notices to Native American tribes all over the country to ask them to get permission. The law required them to do a survey of historic buildings within a two mile radius when the project wasn't touching any buildings.
The law is piled high with literally millions of requirements like that that prevent anyone from actually moving forward and doing a job.
So one of the things I liked about this book is that you have a series of constitutional amendments that you propose. And the first one is the 28th Amendment, which would impose a mandatory sunset on all laws.
Right. And so Congress is never going to go back and clean up all these laws because it violates the laws of legislative business to take anything away from any special interest. So, I think the only solution is to have a constitutional amendment that says every 15 years, any program with budgetary impact must expire and Congress doesn't have the authority to reauthorize it until an independent commission has actually given a report, made recommendations and we've had a chance for public debate. Because right now, democracy is like a runaway train.