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The federal government spent $1.65 trillion in 1998 to carry out its domestic discretionary, military, entitlement, debt service and other ends.1 Those costs encompass the entire on-budget scope of the federal government. But there is more to the reach of the federal government than the sum of the taxes we send to Washington. Compliance costs of environmental, safety and economic regulations imposed by Uncle Sam are known to total hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Yet since detailed, formal official accountings for regulatory costs rarely exist, these costs occur “off-budget” and largely escape even the arguably insufficient controls that the fiscal budget encounters. Thus it is unclear precisely what Americans pay, and what level of benefits they get in return for regulatory compliance costs. Too often, regulatory discipline relies on the good faith of agencies to voluntarily disclose the costs and benefits of their regulations rather than a requirement that they do so. Yet in the face of this uncertainty, the 1998 Federal Register contained the highest number of pages since the Carter presidency.
The precise price tag of federal regulations will always remain unknown. But compiling disparate government and independent data depicting regulatory costs and numbers of rules can help make the whole enterprise more comprehensible. Some of the highlights of this year’s edition of Ten Thousand Commandments follow.
If maintaining a balanced budget or surplus remains a priority, then controlling regulatory costs may assume an added importance. Any new government programs will require increasing spending or imposing new rules and regulations. That being the case, the balanced budget imperative may tilt Congress toward adopting new off-budget private-sector regulations rather than new spending that would whittle the federal surplus. Congress knows with certainty the size of the surplus and may grow nervous as it dwindles, but since regulatory costs are hidden, the fallout from regulating instead may be less.
The proper way to police the regulatory state is to treat it the same way the spending state is treated: Congress must be made directly accountable, to the greatest extent possible, for the costs that agency rules inflict on the public. Even if cost-benefit analysis — the typical remedy proposed to police excess regulation — is fully realized, congressional approval of regulations and regulatory costs remains vital. Cost-benefit analysis is merely a form of agency self-policing, and it is not enough, because agencies rarely will admit benefits of a rule do not justify the costs. Congressional, not agency, approval of agencies’ final rules would be the ultimate realization of accountability to the public. Maximizing congressional accountability by requiring Congress to vote on agency rules (in an expedited fashion, of course) would fulfill citizens’ rights to “No regulation without representation.” Disclosure is the pathway to full accountability, and there are numerous ways that even simple regulatory “report cards” could be produced by the federal government to distill the data that is available. Presentations like that those that appear in Ten Thousand Commandments can be done officially by the federal government as well.