Sometimes politicians use metaphors that are more enlightening than they realize. The Hill blog reports on the words of Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) from Friday. I think they are worthy of consideration:
“‘There’s no question that the Republicans, at least in the House and perhaps in the Senate as well, have contributed significantly to the legislative constipation that we are experiencing here in the United States,’ Cleaver told MSNBC.”
It didn’t always used to be this way, but in the modern world virtually all governments have parliaments or legislatures. These are committees whose main justification for existence is to make new laws for the nation. They have some duties that are more management-oriented, such as setting the budget, but they are seen mainly as a group of people with the authority and responsibility of manufacturing new laws every year. A place on this committee is gained by winning a popularity contest, and is always dependent on people with campaign money who also need favors from the people who win those contests.
So year after year, decade after decade, even into centuries, Congress has convened annually and given the nation more laws. The idea seems to be that society cannot survive without more instructions, backed by penalties for those who don’t follow them.
Frankly, I don’t think this makes any sense at all. An organization that has, as its main reason for existence, the creation of more laws seems to me to be a dangerous organization. Shouldn’t there be at least one year when they can admit, “We really have enough laws for now. Americans don’t need fresh orders from us or new reasons why they might land in jail”?
That’s why I love the term “legislative constipation.” Cleaver seems to see Congress as a source that overflows with an ever-renewing supply of fresh laws. But his metaphor provides a new way of understanding what it means to be “sitting in office.” These laws, if he is right, are not food for the masses; they’re a never ending supply of “dung sandwiches” that citizens are forced to eat. Cleaver is demanding that Congress throw away the Imodium and give full vent to its collective bowels. No more constipation! He demands. We desperately need legislative diarrhea! Republicans must heed their calling to defecate on Americans like the Democrats want to do.
Yet many great societies developed a law code from a common ethical base and from judges setting precedents without a law-by-committee system. The common law of England preceded the existence of Parliament. Roman law wasn’t perfect but it did provide for social order without a legislature manufacturing more new laws every year. Ancient Israel had no legislature even though it had a law code. Thus, the unbeliever H. L. Mencken’s observation: “Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.”
Nevertheless, according to Cleaver we need popular action to bring about a legislative enema: “Americans ought to be livid. They ought to be angry. They ought to be getting their pitchforks and marching on Washington.”
They’d better bring raincoats, airtight goggles, and nose plugs too.