FEULNER: Breaking the regulatory stranglehold

Onerous rules suffocate freedom

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Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes, the saying goes. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t stop there. We can add one other inescapable component: regulations.

Think you can avoid them by, say, not owning a business? Sorry. If you’re breathing, you’re affected by regulations. Considering there are government rules for funeral homes, even the lack of a pulse won’t save you. There are thousands upon thousands of individual regulations, and the annual cost runs into the billions of dollars.

Some may say it’s businesses that pay those costs. Wrong. The costs of these regulations are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices and limited product choices. For example, the price controls that bureaucrats slapped on the fees that banks may charge to process debit-card transactions prompted banks to cancel many rewards programs and free services. It led to higher fees on checking accounts and credit cards.

In fact, there’s hardly an area of our lives that goes untouched by regulation. The rules cover many things, including refrigerators, freezers, clothes dryers, air conditioners and energy standards for fluorescent lights, to name just a few. There are testing and labeling requirements for toys, limits on automotive emissions of “greenhouse gases,” requirements for posting federal labor rules, and explicit warnings for cigarette packages. The list goes on.

Heritage Foundation analysts James Gattuso and Diane Katz recently compiled a list of the 10 worst regulations of 2012. As we begin 2013, let’s review a few of the more ridiculous rules that went into effect last year. With any luck, policymakers will adopt some common-sense reforms in the next 12 months.

* In August, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks (model years 2017-2025). The average fuel economy the rules required by 2025 is 54.5 miles per gallon. Sticker prices will soar by hundreds of dollars. “Regulators argue that the fuel savings will make up these costs,” Mr. Gattuso and Ms. Katz write. “Whether consumers want to make such a trade-off does not matter. The government has decided for them.”

* In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its proposal for a more “consumer friendly” mortgage process. The idea was to simplify home loans. The result: 1,099 pages of rules. In August, the bureau proposed more than 560 pages of detailed rules for mortgage servicing. Far from simplifying anything, this will reduce consumer mortgage lending choices and hike costs.

* In April, the National Labor Relations Board issued rules that shorten the time allowed for union-organizing elections to between 10 and 21 days. This hardly gives employees time to make an informed decision.

* States and cities can also issue ill-conceived regulations. In September, the New York City Board of Health listened to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and banned the sale of soda and other sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, street carts and movie theaters. “New Yorkers are apparently still allowed refills, at least for now,” Mr. Gattuso and Ms. Katz write. “No word on how many New York City cops will be moved from crime prevention to monitor the city’s soda fountains.”

* In February, the Department of Health and Human Services released its mandate requiring that all health insurance plans include coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives. There are no exceptions for church-affiliated schools, hospitals and charities whose religious beliefs forbid them to comply with this mandate. No wonder 42 cases with more than 110 plaintiffs are challenging this restriction on religious liberty as a violation of the First Amendment.

How can lawmakers help? They can start by requiring congressional approval of any new major regulations. They can also demand that these regulations have an expiration (“sunset”) date.

“As government expands,” President Reagan once said, “liberty contracts.” Keeping regulations under control is a very good way to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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