Cleaning the Legislative Attic: One Act to Review Them All

By: Contributor - Mar 3, 2014, 2:30 pm

It seems that our members of the US Congress, whether they realize or not, have discovered a be-all, end-all solution to regulations that are unnecessarily burdensome: The Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act of 2014.

Introduced to the House subcommittee on regulatory reform by the American Action Forum, this proposal is for an automatic process to negate duplication, a lack of universality, and regulatory inefficiency in federal legislation: in other words, some way to get rid of the mountain of legislation that grows ever higher.

Kidding aside, this could be promising for the US regulatory system, which is currently an inefficient mess of not-quite, not-yet, and not-at all. The federal government implements 3,600 new regulations annually, and added 159.9 million new paperwork hours in 2013. At this moment, they are pushing 2.5 billion total hours of paperwork per year — a figure that has almost doubled since 2000.

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Paperwork is time-consuming for constituents and costly to agencies. A release from the White House defines the paperwork burden as “the time, represented as hours spent by the public responding to Federal information collections … reading and understanding a request for information, as well as the time spent developing, compiling, recording, reviewing, and providing the information. Accordingly, paperwork burden includes more than just the time necessary to file a tax form or fill out a benefits application.”

It is puzzling, then, that agencies are having such a hard time keeping existing paperwork requirements under control, let alone preventing new ones from popping up. The fundamental problem is that there exists no requirement to clean out the old before adding anything new. It’s true that good regulation should keep pace with industry growth, but slapping new documents on dusty and yellowing piles of outdated (and often contradictory) rules is just careless.

The US government is vast, of course, with many departments and agencies with the power to regulate as they see fit. However, when departments are stepping on each other’s toes because of over-regulation, it’s time to re-evaluate. The Government Accountability Office has found 17 areas of redundancy in its annual report, “Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication.” In those 17 areas, the American Action Forum has found “642 million paperwork hours, [US]$46 billion in costs, and 990 forms of federal overlap.”

That gives a whole new meaning to Nancy Pelosi’s “the cupboard is bare” line.

Whatever regulatory responsibility the government charges itself with, it must also resolve itself to the task of constantly reviewing it. Most efforts at review have come from the executive branch — an unfortunate waste of an executive’s time, seeing that orders vary from administration to administration, and task forces are neither government-wide nor permanent.

Richard Nixon was one of the first presidents to take a crack at reviewing the regulatory system by establishing the National Industrial Pollution Control Council, which focused on new regulations and their possible costs. Jimmy Carter followed suit with Executive Order 12,044 and the creation of a form of retrospective review. Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13,563 in 2011, claiming that the regulatory system should “protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation.”

This haphazard and disjointed process has, unfortunately, withered any little seeds of progress that could have sprouted. The United States lacks a codified, systematic approach to reviewing existing regulation and scrutinizing newly proposed controls. The act now being considered by Congress will hopefully address that.

This proposed legislation is ambitious, seeing that truly comprehensive review will require sifting through more than 9,100 existing regulations and 174,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations. Additionally, there is nothing to stop the production of new regulations while the members of the legislative branch scratch their heads and ponder the code.

The act is broad, but it could do the United States government some good. Many national and local governments around the world follow specific guidelines for reviewing regulation. The United Kingdom, for example, is famous for its “One-in, One-Out” (now “One-in, Two-Out”) process of elimination. Sam Batkins at American Action Forum thinks this is a much more “comprehensive approach” than a “paperwork budget,” and that it will allow agencies to accomplish their goals while “stemming the tides” of new regulation. The cut-go policy would let regulations adapt to current needs, while forcing agencies to clean house before they acquire anything new.

This could be very promising for the burgeoning regulatory state. Batkins suggests that, “A flexible approach that addresses the cumulative stock of rules would usher the regulatory state into a new era and reduce uncertainty from one administration to the next.” Whittling excessive regulation has received bipartisan support in the past, as seen in the passage of the Paperwork Reduction Act — passed with only 13 “no” votes in the House of Representatives.

It remains to be seen how well an act like this will be received by people whose job it is to push and process paperwork. But before the legislative branch can give any single agency house-cleaning advice, it has quite a bit of its own “spring cleaning” to do as well.