There Oughta Be a Law

Readers of a certain age will recall, and just about everyone will have heard the phrase “There Oughta Be a Law,” popularized through a comic strip by Harry Shorten and Al Fagaly that was a transparent imitation of “They’ll Do it Every Time,” by Jimmy Hatlo.

The premise of the former was to point out little paradoxes, situations in everyday life that cried out for redress, but which were so trivial that the thought of creating a law to correct them was ludicrous.

And yet you’ve probably said the same thing yourself about your pet peeve, trivial or profound.  One who is near and dear to me complains from time to time that elderly drivers are a menace and should be removed from the roads once they can’t drive safely, and I agree.  I always say to her what I’d say to you if you made a similar complaint; “Why don’t you do something about it?”

Easy for me to say, she says, you’re a lawyer.

But that’s what makes this country great, I tell her.  While lawyers generally make up the majority of legislative bodies in America (a fact that may account for the low esteem in which politicians are held) there’s nothing to stop you–John or Jane Q. Public–from making law.  You don’t have to be a lawyer or a legislator to write a law.  The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker can all be legislators.  Remember, in Abraham Lincoln’s enduring phrase, we have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

Perhaps, as was often the case in my youth, I was beguiled by a cute cartoon character into becoming an amateur lawmaker.  I used to love those little diagrams in civics books that showed “How a Bill Becomes a Law”  (“Step #1: Stop by your friendly representative’s lobbyist with a big fat check!”).  While Scott Waldrip and Terry Lovingham were passing mash notes back and forth, I was dreaming of someday addressing a bunch of mossbacked hacks in a marble-domed legislature, fighting special interests, pleading on behalf of the downtrodden like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Jimmy Stewart:  “These kids need fresh air–not a bunch of crappy petitions!”

I got my start as a jackleg lawmaker with a bill that got my name in a lead editorial in a major metropolitan newspaper.  In Massachusetts, you can submit a bill to your senator or representative, who introduces it for you.  If he or she agrees with your position, they do so under their own name.  If they think you’re a crackpot, they do so “on your behalf.”  My bill, as you might imagine, was introduced by my state senator on my behalf.

But it wasn’t a crazy idea at all.  I proposed a law that would require that our state auditor actually be . . . an auditor, as opposed to a boxer, which is what the auditor at the time was, not a certified public accountant.  Understand, I’ve got nothing against boxers, and have been watching them on TV and sometimes in person since the early 60’s.  If we had the office of state boxer, I’d vote for a boxer, no doubt about it.  But our state attorney general has to be an attorney; our state archaeologist has to be an archaeologist.  Why shouldn’t our auditor have to be an auditor?

“Daddy, that man’s boring me!”

Not only was my bill introduced, it got a public hearing.  The chairman of the committee started things off with a respectfully phrased question: “Who put you up to this?” he snapped.  It was my idea, I told him–call me crazy.  The committee heard me out, then the chairman asked if anyone from the state auditor’s office was present.  A young woman rose and identified herself.  The chairman asked if she wanted to speak.  “No,” was all she said, and sat down.

So it was a good idea–even the auditor’s office agreed with me!  And it went where all good ideas introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature go; back to committee, where it died a peaceful death, like a pachyderm wandering off to an elephants’ graveyard.

But I wasn’t done, no sirree.  Next I tried an initiative petition, a tool developed during the Progressive Era whereby those with an idea burning in the heart or brain or some other organ could take it directly to the people, bypassing state legislatures which were then controlled by 19th century vested interests such as railroads and utilities.

“Hi–we’re trying to legalize marijuana for tattooed ferrets.”

If your state has this avenue to create a law, you collect a small number of signatures–ten in this state–and if the appropriate public official certifies that your petition is in proper form, you are allowed to collect a larger number of signatures from registered voters, usually based on your state’s population.  This year the number in Massachusetts is 68,911.  If you reach that goal, and if you have enough extra signatures to make up for those that are knocked out (Alfred E. Neuman, Bill Fold, Jim Shoes, etc.) your law goes on the ballot to be decided on by the people–not those corrupt legislators who are in the pockets of big business or big labor or big cranberry or some other cordon of nefarious henchmen.

Alfred E. Neuman:  Vote early and often!

The first time I tried this route our enemies launched a line-by-line attack on what we thought was more than enough signatures.  It might have been, but in addition to signers who weren’t registered to vote, or who had moved from one town to another without renewing their registration, we were the victims of a new legal doctrine.  If there was any foreign mark on the petition sheet–a coffee spill, a doodle where someone had scribbled trying to get a ballpoint pen going–all 39 signatures on the sheet were invalidated.  That’s a good rule, isn’t it?  Makes a lot of sense.  We wouldn’t want our democracy to be sullied by something as perfidious as a Dunkin’ Donuts lahge regular, would we?

So that one failed, but the next two times I worked on a petition drive we gathered more than enough signatures to get on the ballot.  Each time the legislature used a procedural trick to keep the people from voting on our proposed law, however, and you can hardly blame them.  If democracy got into the hands of the people, all hell could break loose.

But I’m not giving up–I’m trying again.  We delivered our papers to the Attorney General’s office the other day after getting our petiton language approved in advance.  We should be good to go.  And then all those cynics who’ve been snickering behind their hands at me–well, I’ll have the last laugh.

They sit on their duffs and get absolutely nothing accomplished.  Me?  I’ll work for months and get absolutely nothing accomplished.

2 thoughts on “There Oughta Be a Law

  1. As the saying goes, “Nothing more deepens a rut than trodding within it.” But convincing people to step out ain’t easy…and in the end the effort may just produce another rut. In any case, good luck! 😉

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