06 July 2009

Does Bad Legislation Ever Get Better?

Last week Thomas Friedman provided a nice illustration of why it is that in some circumstances policy analysis is trumped by symbolism, exhortation and pure political expediency:
There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.
After this very accurate characterization of the legislation, what conclusion does Friedman arrive at?
Now let’s get it passed in the Senate and make it law.
In short, it is a pathetic, appalling stinker of a bill that he detests, but wants to see in law. Friedman's argument must be that bad legislation can get better over time.

So here is an empirical question that I'd love to get your views on: can you provide an example of complex legislation that was roundly criticized by its strongest supporters that became law and was improved -- either before initial passage or after becoming law -- in such a way that it eventually achieved policy goals?

I'll open the discussion with a case that makes the opposite point. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation in the 1980s sought to balance budgets. It focused on setting a spending cap with plenty of means to avoid that cap (sound familiar?). Predictably, it failed and was widely perceived as a failure. Because of how it was designed it did not and could not work. It was not improved but supplanted by the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which set the stage for the on budget surpluses of the late 1990s (aided of course by favorable economic winds). The case of US budgeting provides a great precedent through which to understand cap and trade. It suggests to me that bad legislation does not get better, it gets replaced. But I am willing to be educated with counter examples.