Among Philip K. Howard’s several books, a favorite title of mine is “Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America.”
If only! On they go, writing numbingly complex codes of conduct and regulations that delight control freaks and frustrate just about everyone else.
Howard’s new book “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government,” is an entertainingly ghastly account of bureaucratic incompetence and individual paralysis as every part of life is codified.
In Alameda, California, firemen watched a man drown because they had not yet been re-certified in “land-based water rescues.”
I talked with Howard, a partner at Covington & Burling and the chair of Common Good, a reform coalition, in his apartment overlooking Gramercy Park where he sat on a sofa heaped with files and note pads filling up with more tales of bureaucratic atrocities.
Hoelterhoff: I liked the story of a teacher who was fired for buying lunch for a kid whose parents hadn’t filled out the right paperwork. It must be hard to find the strength to keep going.
Howard: Actually, it’s energizing to be on a mission. I’ll tell you another story.
A couple of months ago, a D.C. parks employee walking with his daughter had a heart attack right in front of a fire station. The firemen are standing there and the daughter runs over and says, “I think my father just had a heart attack, he’s gasping for breath. Can you please help?”
They say “Oh, we’ll call 911.” So she says: “But he’s right here.” They said, “No, the rule is we call 911.” By the time that the ambulance came, he was dead. We’re turning people into bureaucratic robots.
Hoelterhoff: Your first book, “The Death of Common Sense,” came out in 1995. Seems it hasn’t been revived.
Howard: We now have several billion words of binding law and regulation. Any one law or regulation is beyond the capacity of even a team of lawyers to understand.
Hoelterhoff: Yet you tell us that Australia trimmed 1,000 rules for nursing homes to about 30, just by saying their environment should be home-like.
Howard: Yes. Respect the dignity of the residents, things like that. It can be done.
Hoelterhoff: But we’re going in the opposite direction?
Howard: Take environmental review. When it was first started, it took two years. Now, the average is eight years. The Welfare Reform Act -- pretty complicated -- that Bill Clinton did, completely changing the welfare system, was 250 pages.
The Volcker Rule, one rule of one sub-part of Dodd-Frank, is 980 pages long. The regulations for the Affordable Care Act can only be measured in feet. It’s seven feet high.
Hoelterhoff: Didn’t Nancy Pelosi say that we have to pass this so that we learn what’s in it. Was she being facetious?
Howard: No member of Congress read that law before it was passed.
You know, there’s a cultural-slash-psychological problem with having too much law. People have a natural instinct to avoid responsibility.
’Clerks and Jerks’
Hoelterhoff: We’re morphing into “clerks and jerks” -- your words.
Howard: It’s the opposite of what our founding fathers expected. Law is meant to be a framework, not a dictator.
Hoelterhoff: Once passed, a law seems to live for eternity. Whatever happened to sunset statutes, which do make a lot of sense?
Howard: Some federal statutes actually do have automatic expiration dates, but Congress typically re-ups them. We need a constitutional amendment that mandates that every law with budgetary impact expires after 15 years and will be subject to review by an independent commission so there can be a debate over whether this law is really serving our purposes.
Hoelterhoff: We sure could have one over educational priorities. It’s stunning that as much as 25 percent of some school budgets is spent on special-needs students.
Howard: That’s a sunset candidate. It’s shocking that there hasn’t been this debate about what the right balance is. Other more generous countries in Europe don’t spend 25 percent of their budget on special ed.
But once passed, these laws and programs become immortal. We’re spending tens of billions of dollars a year on subsidy programs from the New Deal that have outlived their usefulness by 75 years.
Hoelterhoff: You’re getting a lot of attention for this book, especially since Jeb Bush tweeted his praise.
Howard: He’s a very practical, balanced, non-ideological person. For him to endorse the book means that he believes, at least in the central message of having to go and clean out government.
Hoelterhoff: How do you get people energized to kill the bureaucratic blob?
Howard: I think it probably takes a crisis. My guess is that it’s either a debt crisis, because we are living beyond our means, or it’s an environmental crisis.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for the arts at Bloomberg news. All opinions are her own.)