By: CORY ROSS - Part One of A Series
“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” - Thomas Paine
Walking into most federal buildings, one will find shelves filled to the brim with white and blue books. These books make up the United States Federal Register, the contents of which contain the rules and guidelines that control the way our government operates. For Washington these books often sit in offices, dormant. Most of these books remain untouched, as pristine as the first day they arrived. They are nothing but a decoration here in DC, an afterthought to those who walk by them each day.
The Register once stood as a monument to American innovation and the power of our
democracy. A set of rules and guidelines, passed down by the government, built to protect its citizens. The Register was a phenomenal feat of governance and democracy, and a shining example of what makes America great. Even more so, however, it was the engine for a government to keep our children safe, our food and water clean, and our lives free from corruption. Over the years however, our elected officials and policymakers lost sight of the true purpose of the Register. When one walks the halls of the various bureaucracies in Washington, they now witness the anchors which are holding back Americans across this country. They see books, filled with duplicative standards, absurd rulings, unnecessary paperwork, and exorbitant fines. They walk past them, and do not realize that the power these books hold over America is far greater than that of the politicians. Once one of our greatest triumphs, the Register now stands as a monument to governmental overreach and the selfish pursuit of unlimited power.
In 1971 the Register reached 25,000 pages for the first time. Less than a decade later, the
register would hit 87,000 pages, a record which stood through four presidencies. In 2016 however, President Obama’s administration would shatter the previous record for pages in the Federal Register. By the end of the Obama administration the book would reach 97,110 pages, blowing past any previous edition. The 2016 Register is the singular residual legacy of the Obama presidency, and has left American business to struggle behind the long shadow of excessive rulemaking.
For American consumers and businesses, excessive rulemaking has immense implications. A
study performed by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University concluded that for every ten percent increase in total regulations, a bump of almost 1% hits consumer pricing. These price increases specifically hit low to middle income Americans, who spend substantially more each year on heavily regulated products. In addition, regulations cost the taxpayers $1.9 trillion per year, greater than the GDP of most countries and over 12% of the American economy.
Consumers aren’t the only ones affected by over-regulation. For the farmer who faces fines
for a day’s work due to the Waters of the United States rule, the grocer whose business is shut down after being hit with the “death tax”, or the restaurant owner who must take the day off to fill out piles of government forms, businesses are impacted by the logistics of our regulatory system every day. Even more so, excessive standards for government contracts and the excessive misuse of occupational licensing laws have left thousands of American entrepreneurs unable to provide for their families - or even to “get in the game”.
While the current administration has successfully fought back against the administrative state, the grip of regulation still takes hold of millions of Americans every year. The Trump administration has turned the tide; cutting 22 regulations for every 1 regulation added and bringing the Register back to 65,000 pages. By the metrics outlined by the George Mason study, the 30,000 pages the Trump administration removed from the Register would substantially decrease consumer prices, leaving more money in the pockets of hard-working Americans. We have witnessed these economic benefits since the end of the Obama era, and have an administration leading by example in simplifying our governing rules.
Despite this, we have yet to unlock the full potential of an American economy not locked in by a rulebook that was built to fail. Since the days of the Carter administration, the Federal Register has simply become too much to handle, and has been left to significantly impact the US economy without addressing its significant problems. The problem has become further compounded by expansive rulemaking on the state and local levels. Regulations set on the federal level are often duplicated by states and localities, sometimes to much greater effect. Such rules leave federal standards obsolete, and distorts the lines of federalism our democracy created. At the same rate however federal regulations are contradicted, leaving industry and consumers alike with little recourse or understanding on how to properly
apply the rules.
The state of regulations in this country has reached its climax, an inflection point where our
policymakers must take action. As of today, the newest update to the Federal Register will contain almost 300 pages of new rules and regulations... all from the first twenty days of January. On the state and local levels, rules are constantly being created and renewed without regard for how the rule will be enforced or maintained. By the day, our leaders spin this web of regulation, with no end in sight.
So what can we do to truly get to the heart of the problem? To get back to a simplified and
systematic code of rules and laws which embody the freedom America offers? The solution lies in those bookshelves. Policymakers and government officials pass them each day, as if they are not there. They have become an overlooked part of the government’s daily role, something from the past that no longer needs to be dealt with. Instead of ignoring those bookshelves and the rules and guidelines which lie within them, the Register should be something consistently being read, reviewed, and updated. While policymakers push for new and popular legislation, the rules and laws we have previously set become forgotten, and eventually, antiquated.
Our policymakers must make a conscious effort to reassess the Federal Register and all government rules in a timely and efficient manner. For the US Congress and state legislatures across the country, standing committees should be put in place to review regulations, discuss their validity, and reconsider their standing in our legal system. These committees should be fully staffed, and should submit rulemaking recommendations for consideration with each yearly budget. Staff and lawmakers should coordinate on this review, working in conjunction with our bureaucratic organizations. An
embedded staff member within each agency should report back to the committee regarding the rules, and their viability in that fiscal year.
Ultimately, the only way to restore the Federal Register to its former glory is not to regulate
it further, but to give it the attention it deserves. Our regulatory environment should not be a
process of rule creation, but of rule assessment. Instead of letting the Register collect dust on a bookshelf, the Register and a mission to review it ought to be a cornerstone of every government office. Today, the national debt stands at over $22 trillion and government is larger than ever before. If we want to fully re-evaluate the way our government functions, revisiting the rules would certainly be a good start.
-- Cory Ross is the former State College Liaison for OHFF, a graduate of Miami University, and is currently employed as a Digital Analyst for The Data Trust in Washington, DC