Congress Confronts ‘Laws Gone Wild’

How extensive is federal regulation? The “hidden tax” now tops $1.8 trillion annually, an immense drain on innovation, entrepreneurship and productivity and living standards.

Federal regulations are so detailed that the Department of Agriculture requires magicians to draft 28-page disaster plans for the rabbits they pull out of a hat.

Most such rules are enacted without input from elected representatives. Unaccountable executive branch agencies can issue almost any regulation they please—and they do. Due to this constant delegation of lawmaking authority to unelected bureaucrats, we live under a system of “regulation without representation.”

What if instead, Congress had to approve all these bureaucratic decrees before they became effective?

This Thursday, the House of Representatives will get the opportunity to affirm its constitutional lawmaking authority, when it is expected to take up the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, introduced by Rep. Todd Young (R-Indiana). The REINS Act would force a Congressional vote before any agency regulation costing $100 million per year becomes binding.

It is expected to pass the House, but faces a tougher fight in the Senate, where Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has sponsored companion legislation.

Indeed, REINS passed the House during the last Congress, but died in the Senate. President Obama promised to veto the bill. That’s hardly surprising, since it would curb his stretching of executive authority to the breaking point—stopping pipelines, controlling Americans’ health care, helping the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drive up the price of energy.

Given recent transparency and accountability-related scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service, the National Security Agency and the EPA, Senators should make it a priority to impose sensible limits on the executive’s power.

It’s actually shocking how regulators now do most of America’s lawmaking. In 2012, Congress passed 127 bills, while agencies issued 3,708 regulations. This 29-fold difference is par for the course. This “Anti-Democracy Index”—the ratio of agency rules enacted to legislation passed and signed into law—has not dipped below 12 over the past decade.

The REINS Act would restore some balance. Currently, there are 224 regulations sporting $100 million price tags in the federal pipeline—roughly double the amount of legislation on Congress’ annual plate. Congress should have to approve anything this costly.

Clearly, over-delegation is rampant and politicians love to deflect blame. When an agency issues an expensive, controversial, or unpopular rule—so what? Congress can shift voters’ ire onto agencies whose staff never have to face reelection.

More ideologically motivated agencies like the EPA take advantage of the double whammy of little oversight and a presidential power grab to push an agenda, like its unrelenting campaign against fossil fuels, one that would never gain approval from Congress.

Over-delegation is costly, and a REINS-style congressional voting requirement would help.

But the larger problem is that the national government has too much power as such. Between its $3.6 trillion budget and $1.8 trillion in regulatory compliance costs, the national government accounts for well over a third of the entire U.S. economy.

This isn’t good. Federal entitlement program mismanagement will require younger generations to rethink their retirement and health care planning when the fiscal time bomb blows up. Regulation poses similar threats.

One new study by economists John W. Dawson and John J. Seater claims that regulatory burdens added since 1949 (when reliable data first became available) have slowed economic growth by two percentage points annually. This means that income per person would be more than $129,000 today, instead of the actual figure of roughly $45,000.

Today, the “laws of lawmaking” have become untethered from the duty to protect the rights of citizens from non-democratic rule. So those rules must be changed. The REINS Act’s increased accountability requirements for Congress and agencies are a start.