Fix the Law to Fix America
Federal law is a confused mess. Under the fog of that confusion, new laws are written that expand, duplicate, and complicate government. Since reading the law is nearly impossible for the average citizen, we rely on the "explanation" from Washington insiders, only to find that what they have told us "ain't necessarily so." And all too frequently, the insiders themselves are surprised, or at least they pretend to be.
Our freedom -- not to mention the efficient and effective operation of government -- will remain jeopardized until we are empowered with the tools to read and understand the law on our own.
The solution is correction of a mistake made 87 year ago, when Congress failed to enact the U.S. Code as law. Instead, we now have something is evidence of the law, but not itself law. (If that strikes you as odd, you cannot be blamed for it.) But fixing the U.S. Code is not on anyone's agenda. For conservatives, it should be.
The father of the Code was Edward C. Little, a congressman from Kansas. In 1919 he became chairman of the backwater House Committee on Revision of Law. This veteran of the Spanish American War, "Colonel Little" to his friends, was serious, stubborn, and persistent. With his one clerk, and the help of his wife, he set about reorganizing all of the individual bills (statutes) previously passed by Congress (at the time in 25 volumes) into a one-volume U.S. Code, organized by subject matter.
Little finished his Code and introduced it as a bill on September 20, 1919. In the years that followed, he passed it three times in the House, only to see it fail each time in the Senate.
Colonel Little died in 1924. Friends claimed that the exhausting work on the Code contributed to his death. Others picked up the cause, and two years later, in 1926, Congress did adopt the U.S. Code.
But the price for Senate agreement was the Code's emasculation. Colonel Little proposed that with adoption of the Code, all the previously enacted individual statutes would be repealed, leaving the newly enacted Code as the single source for the law, to be amended directly by future sessions of Congress. Claiming that there were too many real or imagined errors in the Code, the Senate balked, agreeing only to adoption of the Code as an organized "finding aid" for the law rather than as the law itself. All the individual statutes would be left in place as the law. Seeing no other way forward, the House agreed, and this arrangement is what passed in 1926.
So the stage was set for the chaos that continues today. Sandra Strokoff, head of the House bill-drafting office, explains that because most of the Code is not law, "you have to find the underlying statute, figure out what that law is with all its amendments over the years, and then amend that law." In classic understatement, she added, "That's a task in itself."
Testifying before a House committee , Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) said, "If you looked at these amendments -- "strike line 2, add 'the' to line 7, delete paragraph 3" -- nobody knows what that means. Wouldn't it be great if there was a better way?"
There is. Correct the mistake made in 1926. Reorganize, update, and enact the entire U.S. Code as law, and then use that easier-to-understand and easier-to-read presentation of the law as the foundation for future amendments.
Since 1947, Congress has been slowly, very slowly enacting parts of the Code, on a title-by-title basis, into law. Out of the 51 subject-matter titles, 26 have been enacted as positive law. While half in number, those Titles represent only one third of the volume of the Code. So the bulk of the Code is still not law and cannot be amended directly, forcing the bill-drafters to embark into a maze of hundreds of years of past individual statutes as they write the next unintelligible congressional bill. That fractured process has produced the result Colonel Little described so many years ago: "Nobody knows what the law is in many cases, and most people are unable to find it at all." Listen, for example, to a Supreme Court oral argument. Does it not sound like a gathering of medieval alchemists?
Restoring the original purpose and function of the entire U.S. Code is a substantial project, way beyond the capabilities of the small congressional office charged with maintenance of the Code. A government-wide, nationwide effort is required. There will be opposition from specialty practitioners (in and out of government) who are comfortable with, and who benefit from, the current situation.
Six hundred and thirty years ago, making the Bible easier to read was a radical idea. After the chief proponent of translating the Bible from Latin into English died, his grave was opened, his body burned as a heretic, and his ashes scattered. Does anyone today consider it a radical idea to make the law easier to read, easier to understand, easier to amend, and easier to adjudicate?
So why are we waiting?