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Trump's 2018 Deregulatory Effort: 3,367 Rules, 68,082 Pages

At year-end 2018, how is President Donald Trump’s regulatory reform project going?

Better than Obama, Bush II, and Clinton in terms of fewer regulations; but not as good as Trump’s own first year.

Let’s look at it. Monday, December 31, 2018, is the last federal workday of the year. That would seem obvious, but a partial federal shutdown on December 22 made clock-out earlier for some.

Nonetheless, a preliminary tally for Federal Register page and rule counts for Trump’s 2nd calendar year has appeared, even though “[d]uring the funding lapse, Federalregister.gov is not being supported."

The Number of Pages in the Federal Register

First, some perspective from a year ago; 2017 concluded with 61,308 pages under Trump; that was the lowest count in a quarter-century (since 61,166 pages under Bill Clinton in 1993). Former President Obama set the all-time record Federal Register with 95,894 pages in 2016.

This time, 2018 Federal Register has topped out at 68,082 pages. (Here’s the December 31, 2018 cover.) That’s a 10 percent increase for Trump over his first year.

It’s not as bad as it seems, though. While the Framers were unable to secure the blessings of liberty for posterity, the architects of the 20th century Administrative State have been able to secure a system of permanence for their successors. Rules and regulations cannot be revoked, only replaced by new ones under the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act’s public notice-and-comment process. (And things get even far more convoluted than that.)

So, for Trump to get rid of a rule (recall his directive to eliminate two significant rules for every one adopted) his agencies have to write a rule. So in a perverse sense, he can’t shrink the Federal Register page count and the number of rules, but has managed to do it anyway by writing fewer new regulatory rather than deregulatory ones. Meeting the two for one directive is getting tougher without congressional action as the low-hanging fruit is picked.

Here’s the breakdown of both page counts and rules (which we’ll cover next) in the Register since 1989 under the first Bush. Despite the 2018 Trump-bump in pages, 2001 was the last time the count was lower than 2018.

 

                                  Federal             Number

                                    Register          of

                        Year    Pages              Rules               POTUS

1989      50,501           4,714               The Bush I years

1990      49,795           4,334

1991      57,973           4,416

1992      57,003           4,155                                      

1993      61,166           4,369               The Clinton years

1994      64,914           4,867

1995      62,645           4,713

1996      64,591           4,937

1997      64,549           4,584

1998      68,571           4,899

1999      71,161           4,684

2000      74,258           4,313                                      

2001      64,438           4,132              The Bush II years

2002      75,606           4,167

2003      71,269           4,148

2004      75,675           4,101

2005      73,870           3,975

2006      74,937           3,718

2007      72,090           3,595

2008      79,435           3,830                                      

2009      68,598           3,503               The Obama years

2010      81,405           3,573

2011      81,247           3,807

2012      78,961           3,708

2013      79,311           3,659

2014      77,687           3,554

2015      80,260           3,410

2016      95,894           3,853                                      

2017      61,308           3,281               Two Trump years

2018      68,082           3,367

After the National Archives processes all the blank pages and skips and archived the final 2018 Federal Register, Trump’s final count will wind up a bit lower.

Yes, the Federal Register’s bulk is a lousy gauge of regulation, but Washington doesn't go out of its way to honestly measure itself and disclose regulatory impact; and while everybody sings the song, cost-benefit analysis is the exception rather than the rule.

The Number of Rules and Regulations in the Federal Register

Under Trump, there has also been a substantial reduction in the number of rules and regulations published within all those Federal Register pages.   

The Federal Register closed out 2018 with 3,367 final rules in all. The only lower count was 3,281 under Trump a year ago, which was the lowest count since records began being kept in the mid-1970s

Back in the 1990s, rule counts were regularly over 4,000, as seen nearby. Even Obama’s exit count of 3,853 was below those stratospheric levels.  Of course, not all rules are created equal and rules comprising fewer pages can weigh more than lengthy ones.

Obama’s own lowest count was 3,410, not much more than Trump’s new score. But fewer of Obama’s rules would be expected to have been devoted to rollbacks of prior initiatives, the emphasis of Trump’s “one-in, two-out” executive order.

Even without congressional action Trump made significant strides in regulatory streamlining (regulatory reform passed the House but could never get through the Senate in the now-shuttering 115th Congress). There are exceptions to that, of course, that I’ll cover another day.

For now, since a rule has to be written to get rid of a rule, Federal Register and rule counts can both grow even in a deregulatory environment, unless Congress short-cuts the process with reform legislation.

That reform will be even less likely in the 116th Congress under Democratic leadership. So Trump’s next move should be an executive order on regulatory streamlining, with specific emphasis on agency guidance documents, that, while they are not formal regulations, nonetheless can have regulatory effect on the public.

Trump also needs to tweak Federal Register reporting so that proposed and final rules are each explicitly deemed either “Regulatory” or “Deregulatory,” which would make next year’s roundup more informative.  

And speaking of next year, Happy 2019!