A Model for Rolling Back Outdated Regulations


Very few people would argue for maintaining horse-and-buggy rules in the era of driverless cars, such as Google’s recently introduced prototype. Most rules still manage to linger on year after year — and they still have the force of law. Why?

The problem lies not with the people or parties in power, but with a regulatory process that makes it almost impossible to get rid of old regulations that have outlived their usefulness, or were ineffective from the start. What we need is fundamental reform of the regulatory process. That is a tall order, but a bill now in Congress can help us take some steps toward that goal.

The challenge is daunting, but it must be addressed. To grasp the scope of the problem, consider the Code of Federal Regulations. At 238 volumes and more than 175,000 pages, it is the longest document ever produced by human beings. It lists more than 1 million specific regulatory restrictions, as tallied by the Mercatus Center. It keeps growing, too, with more than 3,500 new regulations added every year, and very few ever subtracted. The cost to the economy: about $1.86 trillion annually.

The Regulatory Improvement Act of 2014, recently introduced by Reps. Patrick Murphy, Florida Democrat, and Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican, and Sens. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent, and Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, would create a Regulatory Improvement Commission to comb through the Code of Federal Regulations to identify ineffective and obsolete rules. The first time through the code, the commission would focus on a specific policy area — say, technology, agriculture or energy policy — with Congress reconvening the commission as needed going forward.

The commission would then submit to Congress a package of old rules to phase out, subject to an up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed, in order to avoid vote-trading and backroom deals. To prevent stonewalling, Congress would be required to vote on the package within a set period of time — 30 days in committee, and 60 days after that for a floor vote, with debate time limited to 10 hours.

Does it sound radical? Perhaps. The basic idea behind the Regulatory Improvement Act has been around for a long time, and has a proven track record. Now this idea is getting fresh legislative traction in large part as a result of the efforts of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Michael Mandel and Diana Carew.

The original inspiration is the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission from the 1990s. An independent commission, it was created by Congress to look at military bases across the country to see which ones were still needed after the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet threat gone, the military didn’t need to be as big as before. The trouble was that Congress was unwilling to actually make the needed cuts for political reasons.

Military bases mean jobs and votes for the congressional districts in which they are located. No member of Congress could stomach a base closure in his district. The result was a lot of unneeded bases remaining open.

The BRAC panel got around this problem by submitting a base-closure package to Congress, subject to an up-or-down vote without amendments. Since multiple districts were affected, the BRAC Commission defused the potential for political bargaining. Lawmakers were forced to concede that, while their district’s base closure would cause them temporary political pain, it was in the national interest to close unnecessary bases, and thus voted for the package.

The BRAC panel worked as planned, and remains one of the biggest reform successes in recent decades. Then-Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, applied the concept to regulation as early as 1995 with his proposal for a Commission on Regulatory Relief and Rollback. A similar proposal appeared in the House in 2004, as the Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies, to address agencies and programs in need of rollback.

A Regulatory Improvement Commission is an important step in unleashing America’s entrepreneurial potential. A straight up-or-down vote to prevent vote-trading and other shenanigans was key to BRAC’s success, and will be key to the success of the Regulatory Improvement Commission’s repeal package.

Many long books are good books — the Code of Federal Regulations is not one of them.