Friday, July 11, 2003

This week, the libertarian Cato Institute released a study chronicling the number and cost of Washington-mandated regulations. In Ten Thousand Commandments: An Annual Shapshot of the Federal Regulatory State, author Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. passes along some stunning information. For example, the 2002 Federal Register is the largest in history, with more than 4,000 rules covering 75,606 pages. The number is growing rapidly by the year. Back in 1990, there were less than 50,000 pages; in 1970, less than 21,000; and 1950 less than 10,000. The Supreme Court may say whatever it wants about privacy in the bedroom, but the mind-boggling number of federal rules make clear that there is very little in our lives that isn’t regulated by the government somehow.

As Mr. Crews points out, “Only five agencies are responsible for more than half of this torrent: the Environmental Protection Agency (surprise!) and the Departments of Transportation, Treasury, Agriculture and Interior.” Green regs, workplace safety and personal health rules are the most persistent. Of all the federal departments, the EPA spends the most on enforcement, with $4.4 billion set aside for policing this year alone. The expense doesn’t all go to worthy causes, such as making sure Lake Erie doesn’t catch on fire. One of the silly EPA regs revealed by the study is a mission to crack down on air pollution caused by plywood. While most regulatory trends are bad in their meddlesomeness, there is some improvement in some areas, and some new rules are justifiable. For example, there are many new rules governing the expanded federal role in homeland security, and a tiny number of regulations are on the books to get rid of other regulations. We could use more of these latter rules, to be sure.

Cato’s examination of Washington’s “Ten Thousand Commandments” reminds us of the unpleasant reality that the era of big government is far from over. The enormous size of the regulatory state is a heavy millstone around the neck of the U.S. economy. At an estimated cost of $860 billion, regulatory spending is larger than the GDP of Canada, about one-third the size of our federal budget and makes the $158 billion budget deficit look like chicken feed.

Changing this bureaucratic nightmare is no simple proposition. Although Rep. J.D. Hayworth has written a sensible bill to require Congress to approve major federal regulations, we’re not holding our breath that his colleagues want to grab hold of this hot potato. As it is, congressmen can vote for vague, noble-sounding bills and never look back, leaving implementation to the bureaucracy. The system is such that no one electable is directly accountable. This is government run amok at its worst, but we shouldn’t expect bureaucrats to fix the mess because we can’t vote out a bureaucrat. If congressmen were required to vote up or down on major regulations, they would have to defend them at the next election. Perhaps then the Federal Register would finally start to shrink.

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