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An agency by any other name is still an agency

An agency by any other name is still an agency

Wayne Hoffman
March 11, 2013

I occasionally read stories about rats causing infestations in big cities and underdeveloped countries. I can see how this is a problem. Rats suck. When my kids were little, we had rats in my house as pets. Rats are fun at first, but they’re born incontinent, making them basically smelly, messy and a nuisance. And they breed like bunnies. But it’s a problem easily solved with creative lawmaking.

I think the government should pass a law declaring that all rats are now dogs. Most people like dogs. Not so with rats. When people complain about dogs, dog lovers need only respond, “but a dog is ‘man’s best friend.’” Boom. Conversation over. It’s an unimpeachable statement. It’s like bringing explosives to a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

Of course, declaring that rats are dogs won’t solve the problem of “dog” incontinence. But for that, I would re-label any droppings or urine left by “dogs” as “love packets” and “hug squirts.” Love and hugs make everything better, always.

Words are what make legislation, and legislation can say anything, even if legislation makes you laugh at its obvious absurdity.

Proponents of an insurance exchange for Idaho note that their bill declares that the exchange “is not a state agency.” It is an “independent body corporate and politic.” Which leads legislators to talk glowingly about how they’ve mastered the insurance exchange problem “without growing government.”

This where the dog/rats come in. If lawmakers can declare agencies are not agencies, I can declare that rats are dogs. But more likely, I can use their premise for my own political ends. I want to cut government. So why not declare that all agencies henceforth are not state agencies, that they are “independent bodies corporate and politic.”
Transportation department? Gone. Department of Health and Welfare? Gone. Department of Fish and Game? Gone. It would certainly cut down on the length of the legislative session. And would solve the gnarly annual smackdowns over fees and taxes, budgets and policies.

There’s a reason why we don’t do that: A government entity, created by the Legislature and carrying out responsibilities assigned to it under state and federal law, is a government agency, no matter what it is called. Calling something “not an agency” only removes one thing from the equation: legislative oversight. What remains is an agency minus the hassle of legislators butting in and asking questions on behalf of constituents.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only dog/rat in the bill: An insurance exchange, by definition, has to collect large volumes of data—personal information on health conditions, income levels, assets, Social Security numbers and so on. To address privacy concerns, sponsors of the legislation added language requiring the exchange board to certify that such data “is and will continue to be secure.”

But just saying something is so doesn’t make it so. And if you’re a computer hacker, being told a database is “secure” only gives you a new and promising target. If certification were all it took to make a database “secure,” banks, credit card companies and government agencies would have done so a long time ago.

So why all the wordplay? Because some lawmakers think you’ll applaud their ingenuity. I don’t.

I think legislators should be upfront with constituents. They’re creating a government agency. This government agency will have broad powers. This agency will gather and maintain large volumes of data. It will try hard to keep the data secure, but you never know with data.

It’s not pretty, but it’s accurate. There’s no cloak, no obfuscation. And no dog/rats.

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