The “Sunset Clause”. I’ve often wondered why legislation expires. If an issue is important enough to require legislation to turn it into a law, what’s the point of attaching a fixed expiration date before that law has even seen the light of day.
I can fully understand that laws may need to be modified after a certain length of time. Changing circumstances may eventually make them unworkable, irrelevant or just plain stupid. In those cases, they can be amended, eliminated or ignored.
In the US, there are Oversight Committees in the US Congress, who are assigned the task of reviewing the existing laws to determine whether they need amending. However, in many instances, the changes they make are more often determined by current politics than they are by actual need. Expiration dates merely exacerbate this problem. The most glaring recent example is the 1994 US Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which contained a ban on assault weapons. IT HAD A TEN-YEAR TIME LIMIT! WHY?
It expired in 2004, and Congress is still debating its re-authorization 18 years later. In the meantime mass shootings with assault weapons have multiplied. If that law hadn’t had an expiration date, these mass shootings would have been far less likely.
The culprit that came up with the idea of a sunset clause appears to be the ancient Roman Senate, where the Law of Mandate first introduced the concept of “ad tempus concessa post tempus censetur denegata”. It was introduced so that future administrations were not restricted by laws passed by previous administrations. It was a fundamental part of Roman law until Julius Caesar became dictator for life.
A sunset clause is very common part of legislation in most democracies today. In America, the Sedition Act of 1798 was subject to a sunset clause, as was the Alien Friends Act of 1798. More recently, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the aforementioned assault weapons ban provision, the USA Patriot Act 2001 and the Estate Tax and Other Tax Cuts Act of 2001 were all subject to a sunset clause.
Unfortunately, the sunset clause has been used more and more to facilitate the passage of legislation rather than because putting a time limit on it has any intrinsic value. I can hear the sponsor of a piece of legislation saying to an opposition colleague, “I know you don’t like my proposed piece of legislation but, if I put a time limit on it, would it be more acceptable?”
In many cases, like the assault weapons ban, this is totally against the public interest. It is merely used as a “bribery and corruption” device to get legislation past legislators who don’t agree with you.
Since any piece of legislation can be amended, killed or ignored, we already have a mechanism for appropriate change. We don’t need a sunset clause. It might be a political convenience but, as the blatant case of assault weapons ban shows, it is often counter-productive to the public interest. It also means that an enormous amount of time and effort needs to be wasted re-authorizing something that already exists. In other words, busy-work for legislators and their staffs that would be unnecessary if we did away with the sunset clause.
While we’re at it, we should also do away with the filibuster, which is another political trick that acts against the public interest, in many instances.
However, there is a fundamental problem. The only way of ridding ourselves of these impediments to the public interest is for the very people who misuse them for their own political advantage, have to vote them out of existence. Fat chance!