Can a New President Cut Regulations Unilaterally?

Both presidential candidates have delivered economic speeches over the past two weeks, and both have at least given a nod to red tape and the need for regulatory reform.

Hillary Clinton promised “new national initiatives to cut red tape at every level” and acknowledged complex tax filing as problematic for small business and entrepreneurship.

Donald Trump promised to “issue a temporary moratorium on new agency regulations” and to “cut regulations massively.”

Over at, I wrote a two part series this week called "How The Next President Can Use Executive Power To Jumpstart Economic Growth On Day One" (here are Parts One and Two)

It’s based in part on our recent CEI OnPointChanneling Reagan by Executive Order.”

The modern debate over checks and balances and the separation of powers has been dominated by President Obama’s use of executive action to affirmatively create policy whether or not Congress approves, and what the bounds are.

But another debate that can be had is about the flip-side: what are the bounds of a president who unilaterally wishes to reduce executive branch power and regulation? Can a new president use the “pen and phone” to curtail government, rather than grow it?

Whatever the bounds are, there’s no question that a president can have an influence on the flow of regulation. The two charts below show how, under President Reagan, both (1) the numbers of pages in the Federal Register, and (2) the number of rules and regulations it contains dropped by well over a third.

The mechanism there was in part a strong (relative to today) Reagan executive order (E.O. 12291) governing the intensity of regulatory scrutiny and review by the White House Office of Management and Budget. For various reasons, regulations later began to creep back upward.

There are bounds to such unilateral actions by a president, just as there are bounds to an executive’s unilateral expansion of the state. But legitimate actions to streamline the executive branch’s own regulations are in order, and can pave the way toward working with Congress on more substantial reforms.