- - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Publishers of law books occupy a sweet spot in the law. Without fail, the legal tomes expand every year. The last Congress added 284 statutes, and Congress has added 184 so far in this session. More than 20,000 bills have been signed into law, and they all had to go into the law books, requiring frequently updated volumes. The rarest law of all is one that repeals an obsolete statute.

Governments here could learn a thing or two from Narenda Modi, the new prime minister of India, who rode to office on the slogan, “minimum government, maximum governance.” He’s redeeming the promise by trimming the fat from the law code. The Centre for Civil Society, a freedom-oriented think tank in New Delhi, estimates that India’s code is still cluttered with 3,000 useless directives, some of them from the colonial era. “Some of the laws on our books are laughable,” says Ravi Shankar Prasad, the law minister. “Others have no place in a modern and democratic India.”

One of the laws on the chopping block decrees that certain property in Calcutta may only be sold to the East India Company, which went out of business more than a century ago. Though they may seem harmless, obsolete statutes weigh down business and harm India’s economic competitiveness. Campaigning this spring, Mr. Modi pledged that for every new law passed, he would see to it that government repeals 10 redundant laws. Mr. Modi wanted to toss 100 statutes in the bin in his first 100 days.

He didn’t make it, but he’s close. His government has revised 36 obsolete laws, and a bill is pending to eliminate 287 obsolete statutes this winter. His ministers have put 1,000 up for the shredder. Mr. Modi is clearly on to something. Here in America, a few states have sifted through their codes to identify pointless laws and regulations and marked them for elimination.

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Republican, created the “Office of the Repealer” three years ago. The office, the first in the nation, eliminated scores of impractical regulations, bad laws and outdated executive orders. The Kansas law books are no longer cluttered by a state fee on pest-control operators, a process for appointing “jail matrons” and instructions for reinstating a sheriff after a lynching in his county.

Tennessee followed Kansas with a repealer last year. Rhode Island devised a weaker but useful method of ridding outmoded laws through a joint legislative committee. Even in Illinois, there’s an interest in the idea.

Washington politicians can’t resist seeing their names attached to new resolutions and acts of Congress, so there’s never an incentive to do the right thing. Success in India and Kansas ought to be an inspiration to congressmen who say they’re for leaner government.

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