- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

COMMENTARY:

Even before counting President Obama’s ambitious “stimulus” agenda, spending by the U.S. government - the largest on planet Earth - is now higher than ever. That’s right. America today has the biggest government in history. We’re now looking at $3.55 trillion in direct government expenditures.

But that’s not all. Before making energy renewable, carbon capped, the Net neutral and health care “available” to all, we need to know what hidden regulatory costs these and other proposals will impose on American businesses large and small.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) seeks public comments by today on developing recommendations for a new “Federal Regulatory Review” intended “to improve the process and principles governing regulation.” We’re glad they asked!

Few Americans are aware of the massive scope of the federal regulatory enterprise. It is hardly common knowledge that 4,004 rules from nearly 70 departments and agencies filled the regulatory pipeline in 2008, or that the Federal Register now skirts 80,000 annual pages. These business, health, safety and environmental regulations (plus paperwork) cost $1.2 trillion annually - on top of the $3.55 trillion in direct government spending.

In the present economic environment, policymakers can ill afford to ignore the need to deregulate to stimulate.

Unfortunately, deregulatory stimulus will inevitably chafe against federal agencies’ incentives to admit when rules are poorly targeted or their benefits do not justify the costs. No matter how costly or inconvenient, a nationwide 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and mandatory 15-foot bumpers would save lives. A net benefit could be claimed. Undisciplined agency regulating isn’t affordable anymore.

The Constitution grants Congress to power to make law. But when Congress delegates that power to agencies, voter control over government is severed. For Congress, this is a political win-win - it can take credit for popular regulatory initiatives but blame agencies for ones that turn out unpopular or too costly.

Elected representatives should be required to approve significant agency rules before they become binding. Accountability demands it: We can no longer tolerate Congress passing so many laws that it cannot even read them all!

Along with congressional accountability, better regulatory cost disclosure is needed, since no one knows whether any given regulation does more good than harm. Abundant information exists, scattered across the federal landscape. An annual Federal Regulatory Review, properly designed, would provide clarity.

The Review Card, which may be published as an addendum to the fiscal budget or the Economic Report of the President every year, should include numbers for the following:

- Total major (costing $100 million-plus) rules and minor rules by regulatory agency.

- Number and percentage of rules impacting small business.

- Cost estimates, with subtotals by agencies and grand total.

- Number and percentage of agencies failing to provide cost estimates.

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