A GROUP OF LAWYERS spent a few hours here on Friday talking about what might happen if the truth-in-lending act were rewritten in two simple sentences. One would say lenders had to disclose the true annual interest rate on their loans.The other would say what the penalty would be for not doing so. Period.
The idea has appeal. The truth-in-lending act, although itself short by modern legislative standards, has already generated over 3,000 pages of regulations and administrative interpretations, and more are on the way. Because of either the law or the huge amount of paperwork - people argue about which - consumers are presented with documents they don't read and probably wouldn't understand if they did; and businessmen are continually wondering whether every "i" needs to be dotted and every "t" crossed - how serious government is about enforcing all these intricate obligatins.
The only consensus reached by this meeting of lawyuers, as far as we could tell, was it might be possible to eliminate some , but not much , of the tangle of administrative interpretations. Consumer groups evidently feel that without such detailed rules and regulations businesses will find ways to conceal useful information from customers. Business groups seem to feel that they will be left unprotected against charges of wrongdoing unless each step they must take is spelled out in advance. Government regulators think they needed to produce all 3,00 pages in the first place to help businessemen know what to do. Nobody, except possibly those who organized the meeting and a few eccentrics who admire plain-spoken English, seemed to take the idea seriously.
We do. And we dwell on this meeting precisely because it says so much about the current onslaught of overregulation that is driving a large part of the nation mad. President Carter had it just right the other day when he described the dealings many Americans have with government as consisting of a "bewildering mass of paperwork, bureaucracy and delay." Unfortunately, the president's remedy - the proposals he has sent to Congress to "reduce, to rationlize and to streamline the regulatory burden" - won't do much good.
The centerpiece of the president's program is an effort to improve the rule-making process. He wants to speed it up (something desperately needed) by setting deadlines for agency action. But he also wants to inject more public participation into the process and he wants to require each agency to publish what might be called a regulatory-impact statement. That statement would examine the costs and benefits of alternative methods of reaching the goal the agency has in mind.
Do you begin to see the built-in problem here? This new procedure could conceivably be a help in making wise choices. But any agency that has been using common sense is probably already weighing these costs and benefits. And there is at least as strong a likelihood, if the past tells us anything, that the new regulatory-impact statements would become just one more part of the bureaucratic rigmarole, one more generator of a useless paper heap.
Like the gestures of his predecessors , most of Mr. Carter's proposals deal with the symptoms of over-regulation, not its cause. Three thousand pages of regulations and intepretations concerning a single piece of legislationdo not spring from some malevolent bureaucratic plot. They are a direct result of the way Congress drafted the law .Bewildered by the complexities that lawyers and others can cook up in relation to the most seemingly simple matters, Congress writes laws that relfect that complexity - carving out exemptions for one interest group after another, delegating too much authority to regulatory agencies and passing the buck to them on politically difficult questions - and expressing all this in a prose that is incomprehensible to any but other people who talk that way.
So the true solution to overregulation can only be found when Congress realizes that cat's-cradle complication is not synonymous with wisdom or fairness. Maybe some of the president's proposed administrative reforms will help. But the most he can do is smooth bureaucratic rough edges. The important part is up to Congress. That is where they write all those regulation-prone and rule-generating statutes in the first place, though you wouldn't guess it from the way they complain about them later.