After lawmakers called a recess and fled Raleigh for the Fourth of July, news stories began tallying the days spent in session and beating a somewhat familiar drum.
It’s beginning to strain credulity to call the General Assembly a part-time legislature. Should it become a full-time, year-round lawmaking body? Should senators and representatives receive more pay for their arduous, time-consuming work?
To answer those questions, let’s take a look at Congress, a year-round bicameral legislature whose members are often criticized for doing too little. As it turns out, they’ve been quite the busy bees.
There are more than 300,000 federal crimes on the books. The Twitter account @CrimeADay delights in sharing some of the many obscure and offbeat criminal laws. Here’s a sampling of the standard fare:
• 31 USC 783 and 4 CFR 25.10 make it a federal crime to post an unauthorized flier on a bulletin board in the Government Accountability Office.
• 18 USC 1865 and 36 CFR 7.67(a)(6)(i) make it a crime to drive down the beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore without a shovel in your car.
• 21 USC 610, 676 and 9 CFR 311.27 make it a federal crime to sell donkey meat if the donkey was killed on a Sunday and it wasn’t an emergency.
• 18 USC 1657 makes it a federal crime to write a letter to a pirate.
• 21 U.S.C. 1037, 1041(a) and1033(g)(5) make it a federal crime to transport a moldy egg.
• 31 USC 5111(d)(2) and 31 CFR 82.1(b) make it a federal crime to melt a penny.
• 8 USC 1725 makes it a federal crime to put unstamped mail in a mailbox.
We obviously have enough laws — too many, in fact. We certainly don’t need any more.
We have so many laws that just about everyone is technically a lawbreaker, as Harvey Silverglate explains in his 2011 book “Three Felonies A Day,” named for the number of serious crimes the author contends average Americans unknowingly commit.
North Carolina’s lawbooks aren’t quite as bloated as their federal counterparts, but there’s more reading material there than the most erudite scholars — to say nothing of us regular folk — could ever commit to memory. Thousands of statutes. Thousands of crimes.
When citizens don’t know the law, they can’t be confident their conduct is lawful. That limits freedom by inviting intimidation and selective enforcement.
Legislatures measure productivity by the number of bills they advance, but we’re already swimming in antiquated, convoluted criminal codes.
Other than passing an annual budget and making occasional tweaks to the voluminous state and federal statutes, there shouldn’t be all that much for our legislative branches to do. Unless lawmakers set their minds to subtracting unnecessary laws, they have effectively worked themselves out of a job.
North Carolina doesn’t need a full-time General Assembly, nor does it need to increase lawmakers’ compensation. We’d prefer perfunctory 30- to 60-day sessions once a year to set spending plans, then full adjournment.
Come to think of it, Congress ought to follow the same no-frills, no-bills regimen. Don’t hold your breath.
— The Wilson Times