- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

President Bush and Congress will eventually answer to taxpayers for the $2 trillion federal budget. But who answers for the $860 billion — 8 percent of GDP — that federal regulations now cost on top of official federal outlays?

Released Tuesday, our annual survey “Ten Thousand Commandments: An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State,” finds regulatory spending equivalent to more than one-third of the entire federal budget itself — a larger burden than the entire federal budget back in the 1960s. It’s greater than Canada’s GDP ($701 billion in 2000) and even greater than pretax corporate profits of $699 billion. But regulatory costs draw less popular furor because, unlike income taxes, they are often hidden in the prices of consumer goods.

In today’s economy, we badly need a new way of thinking about and getting control of the burgeoning regulatory state.

The Federal Register, where new rules are published daily, hit an all-time record high of 75,606 pages this past year (up from 9,562 in 1950, 20,036 in 1970, and 49,795 in 1990). In the pipeline are now 4,187 rules at various stages of completion. Five agencies are responsible for more than half of this torrent: the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation, Treasury, Agriculture and Interior.

Recent proposals have included: workplace slip-and-fall hazard and indoor air-quality mandates from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration; labeling of sausage casings and exported caviar from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; acceptable ingredients for bathroom grout from the EPA; smoke alarm location requirements for prefabricated homes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and proposed bans of frowned-upon backyard play sets under consideration by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Transportation Department is busy with rules on daytime running-light glare, door retention and brake-hose reliability standards, side and roof crashworthiness, and radiator safety caps.

Many such rules are well intended. Others are questionable. But voters’ connection to those who regulate is severed: Congress takes credit for popular regulatory initiatives, but can then blame agencies for costs.

Regulatory reform during the Bush administration has a role to play in economic recovery. Phasing out inefficient rules, making regulatory costs as transparent as direct taxes, and making Congress directly responsible for those costs, are crucial to economic health. Congress delegates sweeping lawmaking power to unelected bureaucrats, and that must end.

Sunsetting: For starters, Congress could ask agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to propose rules to eliminate each year, and phase out new regulations every few years unless review finds cause to continue them.

As part of the “sunsetting” review process, an annual “Regulatory Report Card” might include historical tables on such measures as total numbers of rules produced per agency; the top rulemaking agencies; the number of rules affecting small businesses, or impacting state and local governments. A report card can help highlight whether the regulatory enterprise does more good than harm.

Regulatory Reduction Commission: Given that sunsetting would take several years to reduce the regulatory burden, Congress could consider a proposal, once made by former Sen. Phil Gramm, for a Regulatory Reduction Commission. It could work like the Military Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which for a time helped resolve the politically tough task of closing obsolete military bases one at a time by assembling a bundle of them to vote on all at once. Mr. Gramm’s idea was for a congressionally appointed, bipartisan commission to hold annual hearings and assemble a broad-based package of cuts to be voted on without amendment, thereby making the package politically more difficult to oppose.

End “regulation without representation”: Congress should not have bureaucrats to blame for regulatory excess that is Congress’ fault. That requires ending excessive delegation.

A bill by Rep. J. D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, the proposed Congressional Responsibility Act, would require that Congress OK significant agency rules before they are binding. Article 1 of the Constitution grants legislative power solely to Congress. Elected representatives should answer for costly regulations.

Some might complain that voting on agency regulations would bog down the Congress. But do we want Washington making so many laws that the legislature can’t even pass them all on its own during waking hours?

If Congress thinks regulatory benefits are worth the costs, it needs to say so, and be held accountable. From now on.

Wayne Crews is a policy director at the Cato Institute. His study, “Ten Thousand Commandments: An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State,” upon which this article is based, was released July 8.


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