Legislation in the Fast Lane

ANYONE who has studied high school civics knows that the basic responsibility of Congress is to write the laws. In practice, members of Congress are not very competent or even interested in actually writing legislation.

It is much more fun to hold highly publicized hearings and talk about some hot topic. Remember the extended hearings on that earth-shattering subject, the colorization of old movies? Being seen on television with Hollywood stars was far more politically rewarding than the nitty-gritty of carefully writing statutes.

The result is that laws are often hastily written and the executive branch agencies wind up issuing convoluted and burdensome regulations. Congress then tries to correct its errors by enacting another round of legislation. Drafting rectification statutes, however, does not get the attention achieved by the original bill. Corrections thus always lag behind the passage of poorly written laws.

In the case of almost every major tax law, members of Congress never saw the final version of the original statute when they voted on it. In the rush to pass the legislation before adjournment, the staff was allowed to draft last-minute changes. Each such ``tax reform'' statute was followed by one or more technical revision bills.

The same prevails in other acts of Congress, such as regulatory legislation and the landmark Clean Air Act of 1990. That 800-page compendium of unrealistic deadlines and costly requirements never got the scrutiny it warranted. A copy of the bill was not available the day it passed. But the passage of the new Clean Air Act provides endless opportunities for criticizing business and government officials for not meeting the deadlines Congress has imposed on them!

A more recent example of ``legislate first, deliberate afterward'' is the new anti-lobbying law that was part of the 1993 tax bill. Who could object to removing the tax exemption from the activities of those high-priced Washington lobbyists?

Given the hasty way in which the law was written, it seems to cover a letter that a business firm writes to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency criticizing a proposed ruling. Unless the Internal Revenue Service finds a loophole, the cost of preparing that letter may no longer be deductible as a business expense. The company will have to determine the cost of the time it took to prepare the letter, the postage and stationery expense, and perhaps a portion of the depreciation of the typewriter or word processor. If the letter is addressed not to the agency head but to a subordinate, it will still qualify as a deductible expenditure.

The IRS is likely to issue burdensome rules to carry out the statute, and taxpayers will direct their ire at the IRS. But the real villains are the legislators who did not examine the consequences before approving another nice-sounding addition to the arsenal of government power.

One positive side effect may emerge. Compliance with the new anti-lobbying law will reduce the flow of correspondence to ``Cabinet-level'' (that's the term in the statute) officials and the number of canned responses they feel obliged to send back.

Merely monitoring the progress of legislation presents no tax problem. But if a company or trade association winds up ``lobbying'' on the bill, it may have to figure out the cost of the effort that went into ``monitoring.'' Under the latter circumstances, monitoring that piece of legislation may no longer qualify as an ordinary business expense.

On reflection, maybe each member of Congress should be required to take a crash course on how to write workable laws - but who will draft that new statute?

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