The changeover of presidential administrations almost always is a good time to reexamine existing policies with an eye to improvement. The news media might be expected to keep us informed about proposals for doing this, but at present, most news outlets seem preoccupied by imputations of scandal and the arcane interpretation of tweets. One supposes that the headline writers are having fun, but the overall effort falls far short of keeping the electorate informed.
We mention this not because this behavior of the press is a dramatic departure from the norm, but rather because the current fixation on silliness can obscure the real opportunity that lies before us. The 115th Congress convened in January, in circumstances that suggest widespread public dissatisfaction with things as they are.
In a republic, that dissatisfaction is signaled by election results. Concrete actions to change the "dissatisfiers" are then up to the Legislature. For best results (perhaps even for merely adequate ones), legislators need to hear well-reasoned recommendations, complaints and commendations from their constituents.
A very good way to convey these messages is the annual National Automatic Merchandising Association Fly-In. This is a two-day program that brings industry members from all parts of the country together for an evening update and orientation, followed by visits to elected officials and their staff members on the following day. The first Fly-In was organized in 2015 with excellent participation, and last year's event built on that strong start. The indications are that the 2017 Fly-In, set for July 25 and 26, will be even stronger.
The budget proposed by the President to Congress for fiscal year 2018 is available from the Office of Management and Budget. It contains a good many sections that repay careful reading. One of them, "Roll Back Burdensome Regulations" (pp. 14-15), calls for a more flexible and responsive approach to federal regulations. It points out that "Each year ... Federal agencies issue thousands of new regulations that, taken together, impose substantial burdens on American consumers and businesses big and small. These burdens function much like taxes that unnecessarily inhibit growth and employment."
Among other things, this description of the problem highlights the importance of events like the NAMA Fly-In. Many or most of those thousands of regulations originate with pressure groups formed by enthusiasts to address what their members regard as a problem. With the monetary support of those enthusiasts, these organizations draft detailed prescriptions and look for legislators who are willing to sponsor them. All too often, the summary sounds right-minded and harmless, but the devil is in the details. The time between the moment at which the legislator's staff begins to draft an enabling law and the moment at which it comes up for a vote offers the best opportunity for people who will be harmed by it to make well-informed objections.
There are a couple of unavoidable problems with government intervention in the economy. The first is that there may be general agreement that rulemaking is required -- but, once the rules are made and imposed, there will be disagreement between those who think the problem has been solved, and those who consider the rule as merely an opening wedge for a continuing campaign. There is a continual tension between advances in human knowledge and the desires of small bands of fanatics to push this or that nostrum in order to improve everyone's life, whether everyone likes it or not.
And this is where responsible advocacy comes in. Elected officials deal with suggestions for laws requiring, encouraging, discouraging or forbidding all sorts of products and activities. In many cases, the suggested law will involve a series of technical issues, many of which are not obvious. Many years ago -- before the invention of mobile phones -- we received a telephone call from a member of a state legislator's staff. He explained that the official had found himself in an airport, needed to make a phone call, did not have a quarter, and wondered why the payphone wouldn't accept dollar bills. Fortunately, he was sensible enough to recognize that there might be a reason, which we explained to his aide, and all was well.
But eternal vigilance is necessary. Legislators, or anyone else unfamiliar with an industry or a profession, are not equipped to recognize the costs of legislation affecting that vocation. It is up to the potential victims to explain these.
The annual NAMA Fly-In, and the legislative days organized by a growing number of state associations, is an excellent starting point for making lawmakers (and especially their staffs, who do the detail-work), aware of unintended consequences. Equally important, the contacts made during a legislative visit can be very valuable at some future time when the legislator is called upon to vote for or against a bill introduced by someone else.
The whole idea of representative democracy is to elect people to represent the citizens, not rule them. Ongoing conversations are the only way to achieve this.