A Sensible Mandates Law

THE logic behind the unfunded-mandates bill as it passed the House of Representatives makes sense: What the federal government is willing to mandate, it should be willing to fund, and it does that by taxing.

True-cost analysis makes as much sense for the government as for a business, or for a family deciding whether to buy a new car or repair the old one.

The House bill needs to be harmonized with one already passed by the Senate; President Clinton has said he will sign the resulting legislation.

The American people, through their Congress, are considering anew a number of questions: How much government should we have? What should it do? What should be done by the federal government and what should be done by state or local government?

The ``Contract With America,'' a collection of proposed legislation the Republicans in the House promise to bring to a vote in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, is, conceptually, a set of proposed answers to these questions. The unfunded-mandates legislation is part of the Contract.

The authors of the bill wisely focused on unfunded mandates on new laws, rather than seeking repeal of, among other things, the bedrock environmental laws that, for all their value, do represent considerable cost to the localities that must implement them. Speaker Newt Gingrich promises to address the costs and other unintended consequences of existing laws by setting aside a ``Corrections Day'' once a month, starting in March, for expedited repeal of laws.

Congress should consider exempting environmental laws from the unfunded-mandates legislation, as laws pertaining to national security and civil rights are exempt. The civil rights category is a particular reminder why Congress has passed unfunded mandates in the past: We haven't always been able to count on the states to do right by all of the people. Some things are too important to trust to the vagaries of state or local government; but that is just where some other things belong.

The new law has an escape hatch for when Congress wants to pass a bill without providing funding for its enforcement: A simple majority will be able to waive the funding requirement. It would be too bad if such votes become as automatic as the increase on the federal debt ceiling.

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