Quick, hang up that cell phone: You may be breaking the law. Well, not the law, exactly, but a regulatory agency’s view of what lawmakers might have meant. And that agency has power to issue its decisions as if they were laws. But wait, the agency has decided cell phones are okay after all, so never mind.
Confused? Aren’t we all.
The trouble begins, as so much trouble does these days, in Washington, D.C. After the financial meltdown of 2008, members of Congress decided they needed to “do something.” They weren’t certain exactly what they should do, but uncertainty didn’t stop them from acting.
The bill they passed in June 2010 is known as Dodd-Frank. It would be unfair to call it a “law,” because it’s not one in the traditional sense. A law explains what a person may not do (steal, for example) or must do (register for the draft). Viewers of the 1970’s Saturday morning stalwart “Schoolhouse Rock” may recall that a law is passed by a legislature and signed by an executive.
It’s reasonable to assume that a citizen reading a law should be able to understand it. He being compelled to comply with it, and it would be unreasonable to expect him to comply with something he can’t understand.
But even if you sat down and read all 848 pages of the Dodd-Frank law that president Obama signed, doing so wouldn’t help you much. Most of its provisions are vague. They express aspirations rather than concrete dos-and-don’ts. As the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell explained in 2010: “The legislation is complicated and contains substantial ambiguities, many of which will not be resolved until regulations are adopted, and even then, many questions are likely to persist that will require consultation with the staffs of the various agencies involved.”