Instant Reform: Measure The Hidden Tax Of Regulation

If Congress doesn’t grapple with the regulatory state, this economy can’t regain footing. You don’t have to tell the grass to grow; you simply have to take the rocks off of it.

Taxes are high, but at least we can open the federal budget and see exactly what the outlays and the deficit are. Regulations escape even that basic visibility.

This Congress must quickly assess the scope of federal agency regulations that cripple manufacturing, the financial sector, telecommunications, energy, high technology, the environment, small business and so forth–and get busy with a “liberate to stimulate” program.

The lowest-hanging fruit is for Congress to immediately make regulatory trends as transparent as possible by requiring that summary regulatory data be published in the annual federal budget, the Economic Report of the President or some other accessible venue. That would foster disclosure that amplifies the pressure for congressional accountability and regulatory relief.

Until 1993, information such as numbers of proposed and final rules and major and minor rules was collected and published in an annual Regulatory Program of the United States Government (in a lengthy appendix titled “Annual Report on Executive Order 12291”). The Regulatory Program was abandoned when the Clinton administration replaced EO 12291 with an order that returned rule-making primacy to the agencies.

That report specified what actions a then-more-aggressive Office of Management and Budget took on numbers of proposed and final rules it reviewed, along with 10-year historical data, providing detail on specific regulations that were chucked back to agencies for reconsideration, revision, even withdrawal as ill-advised. The report also featured comparisons of the most active rule-producing agencies, and provided analysis of numbers of pages and types of rule documents in the Federal Register.

The material featured in the former Regulatory Program should be revived immediately, as a first step in a larger annual Regulatory Report Card. Portraying the off-budget scope of government in terms of trends in numbers of rules at the agencies is a prerequisite for slashing the actual regulatory costs that agencies refuse to acknowledge (but they won’t be able to do that much longer, if Congress does its job).

Here’s a breakdown of information collected in the former Regulatory Program of the U.S. Government that Congress should immediately reinstate:

–Tables and pie charts depicting total number of OMB reviews of rules, by agency; presented in number, and as a percentage of the total.

–Number of expensive “major” ($100 million-plus) and non-major rules, by agency.

–Chart comparing the major and non-major rules from current and previous years.

–Brief description of all major proposed and final rules.

–The 20 most active rule-producing agencies, by number of rules reviewed, with history.

–A chart on types of actions taken on rules reviewed by OMB. “Total Reviews” were broken down as follows: “Found consistent (with executive order principles) without change”; “Found consistent with change”; “Withdrawn by agency”; “Returned for reconsideration”; “Returned because sent to OMB improperly”; “Suspended”; “Emergency; Statutory or judicial deadline.”

–Several pages of detail on the actions taken on rules reviewed.

–Average review time.

–A listing of rules exempted from review procedures.

–Numbers of Federal Register pages, current and prior years.

–Analysis of aggregate pages published in the Federal Register (total pages; average pages per month; percentage change year to year; percentage changes over time.

–A breakdown of overall proposed and final rule documents in the Federal Register.

–Analysis of aggregate final rule documents published in the Federal Register by number and percentage. These were broken down into New requirement; Revision to existing requirement; Elimination of existing requirement, and Other.

–Number of final rule documents by Agency

You get the idea. As Peter Drucker said, to manage one has to measure; so regulatory reporting is a basic and necessary, but not sufficient, step. We of course have to go much further: Voters need the (now absent) ability to hold Congress directly responsible for regulations by requiring congressional approval of new rules (as the REINs Act would permit). Meanwhile, older rules need routine review and purging, and there are procedures to get that done too.

But for now, let’s get that ruler out.