Good Laws, Good Intent, Bad Consequences
This week, I'd like to thank Indiana Governor Mike Pence for providing us with yet another example of why making laws isn't always the best of ideas, and the rest of the world for reminding us why--yet again--people don't really get the process of lawmaking, or how passing a law can have unintended consequences.
There's a unique quality to certain brands of people who practice law. We tend to think that more laws don't always equal a good thing, and we tend to believe that when new laws that seem like a good idea get passed, there's going to be bad things that come out of said laws. I can't begin to count the number of times that I've pointed out in the last couple of years where a law with seemingly "good intentions" became a really, really shitty idea.
The old "Schoolhouse Rock" example of how a bill gets passed on Capitol Hill still applies, but here's a more accurate example of how these matters work. Something bad happens to someone, and the person who suffers those ill effects is usually someone in a position of power or wealth. That person in a position of power or wealth contacts someone in their state legislature, and a bill gets written. Cue Schoolhouse Rock, and we go through the process of writing a law, which gets signed into a state or federal code. Another example is when a group of people start a groundswell movement, and lawmakers in a state legislature go "crap, we need to do something about this to make our constituency happy." Again, cue that "bill on capitol hill," and things get into motion.
Lawmakers aren't stupid, despite what many people believe, and they stay in office because they know how to do their job. I speak specifically here of the job that is writing legislation and getting it through committees, to the floor for a vote, and making sure the entire thing passes constitutional muster so it doesn't get turned down by a high court. In doing their respective jobs, they have to make sure the legislation they pass is tailored to fit a specific purpose, that it is not vague or overbroad, that it doesn't negatively affect a protected class of individuals, and that it advances the interests of their respective constituency. They have to make sure that it takes care of those who elected said person into office*, and that it makes sense for all to follow. After all of this careful language manipulation. lawmakers still have to go through a process of committees, where they convince other lawmakers that adding THIS particular legislation onto the books is a good idea.
When a law makes it through committees and the votes, then it has to go to the governor, or at the Federal level our President. This is where the big job happens--the head honcho has to make sure the law is a really, really good idea. This man or woman has to make sure the law is going to do what it says it will, and that there will be no backlash or repercussions with which the state or federal government isn't comfortable handling. Once the head of the executive branch signs that bill--for better or worse--they've put their respective stamp of approval on it.
This is the system of lawmaking we've had since the founding of the United States of America. This the system we continue to use, because there's really no better way we've found to do things. This is how we continue to enact legislation, because there's countless hurdles a new law needs to pass before it's codified. And despite this, it still continues to push out stuff that looks good in principle, but turns out to be a really bad way to do business.
Submitted for your approval: Tennessee legislators get sick of people abusing narcotic pain medicine in the state. They begin pushing through the legislature a bill to repeal the Intractable Pain Relief Act, which allows people to chose narcotic pain relief as a first line of treatment for symptoms of illness or injury relief. The thought behind the law makes sense, as if the pill abusers can't get their hands on those doggone Oxys then they won't be able to snort so many, right? And while we're at it, let's put something in the law that says doctors have to exhaust every non-narcotic method of pain relief before they get to use narcotic pain medication.
The bill passes. Suddenly the cancer patient who can barely walk due to excruciating, agonizing pain visits a doctor who says "Sorry about all those aches and pains. Have some Tylenol."
Or the Tennessee law that got passed because someone was really upset so many babies were coming into the world with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) due to all those drugs. Some legislator thought it would be a good idea to make women who gave birth to children with NAS criminals, because if we tell someone their drug use is bad, they'll surely cut down, right? Despite numerous objections from medical professionals, the bill is passed. Suddenly, more birth complications pop up, because mothers don't seek medical treatment. Mothers have more postpartum medical issues, because they refuse to seek medical care during pregnancy. Everyone the law ends up meaning to "protect" gets sicker and sicker.
Here's one more. People in Virginia get really, really upset because women are having explicit pictures of themselves shared without their consent. The words "revenge porn" get thrown around. No one wants to see a woman's rights violated in this day, and it's a really, really shitty thing when you start tossing around nude photos just because someone broke up with you, right? So Virginia lawmakers pass a law making it a criminal offense to share nude photos of another person without his or her specific, explicit consent.
The first people arrested and jailed under this new law are women who decide to share stuff from their cheating husbands' phones on Facebook and Twitter labeling other women as "sluts" and "home wreckers."
Lest anyone think that I'm going off on just one political side of the spectrum, how about the law that was passed because a bunch of shitty insurance companies decided people shouldn't have access to affordable health care. Remember the words "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan?" Yeah. Again, good law. Bad consequences.
I seriously doubt Governor Pence was prepared for the repercussions his state would face in such swift, dramatic fashion when he signed Indiana's RFRA into law. I don't think for one second the people who wrote the law, despite what you might hear on Buzzfeed, HuffPo, or otherwise, wanted to pass a law that would specifically harm LGBT individuals. To be fair, I haven't seen the minutes from the floor of the Indiana Senate or House, and if those show the law was intended to harm the LGBT community, then those who signed the law are compete assholes and need to be railroaded out of the town with a stake shoved up their respective asses.
But like a lot of laws, it was a good idea with some really, really bad consequences. it's a good thing to want to protect the religious rights and beliefs of people. It's a good thing to protect people from having nude photos shared without their consent. It's a good thing to give people access to affordable heath care. It's a good thing to protect people--especially children--from the horrors of drug abuse and addiction. The consequences in every one of these scenarios, though, were things the legislators never thought about, and now it's coming back to bite them on the ass.
"But Chris," I hear people saying, "are you in favor of scrapping the legislative process entirely? How do we make laws without the current system? How do we protect people who need protection? How do we make and enforce the rules of a country without continued legislation at the State and Federal levels?"
It's easy. Stop being shitty people. We shouldn't be sharing nude photos of others without consent. We shouldn't be telling a person their religious beliefs don't matter. We should be caring for children who suffer from drug addiction, and treating the adults in the throes of that horrific disease with compassion instead of demonizing them. We should be doing all of this because it's the right thing to do--not just as a Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or otherwise, but because we are all people living on the same rock orbiting the sun, and we need to get along and help each other if we're all going to survive.
But we don't, because a whole bunch of us are shitty people. So more laws get passed, and more laws will have really, really shitty consequences.
And in a year's time, there will be another Mike Pence.
*Let's assume for a second that we're talking about actual citizenry, not lobbyists. I know, it's a hypothetical, but still.