The Regulatory Improvement Commission

There are regulations for everything from restaurant menus to walk-in freezers’ energy efficiency. Almost no one denies that the nation’s economy is saddled with some outdated and goofy regulations that have accumulated over the years. And almost no one opposes getting rid of those. Clearly some pruning is in order. The most recent print edition of the Code of Federal Regulations stands at 174,000 pages, spread over 238 volumes. The index alone is 1,142 pages long!

There is only one problem. The reason we say “almost no one” is that the people best positioned to do something about the problem are precisely those with the least incentive to do so — regulatory agencies themselves. No bureaucracy would voluntarily reduce the size and scope of its mission and its budget. Agencies seek to grow, in terms of both authority and budget. So we cannot look to the regulators themselves for relief.

Instead, reform must come from outside. One such approach is the Regulatory Improvement Act of 2013, introduced by Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). The bill would establish an independent Regulatory Improvement Commission, which would identify rules ripe for repeal and send them to Congress.

The idea goes back at least two decades, and has garnered support from across the political spectrum, from former Senator Phil Gramm (R-TEX) on the right to the Progressive Policy Institute’s Michael Mandel on the left. Here’s how a Regulatory Improvement Commission would work.

Congressional leadership and the president would appoint the Commission’s members. After identifying one area of emphasis — say, technology, or food and drug safety — the Commission would comb the books for outdated, redundant, and inefficient rules in that policy area. Along the way, it would also solicit comments and suggestions from the public and affected industries.

The Commission then works those comments and suggestions into a single legislative package to be sent to the relevant congressional committees. The committees will then have up to 30 days to review the package legislation, but not to scuttle it. After that, it would head to the House and Senate floors for a vote.

The vote would be straight up-or-down, with no amendments allowed. This prevents vote-trading among lawmakers agreeing to save one another’s pet regulations. In other words, no log-rolling allowed. If a member ends up taking political heat for voting in favor of the package, he or she will have plenty of company. All members can rightly say that the total benefits of the package exceed any parochial costs to one’s district.

Once this process is complete in one regulatory area, the Commission move on to another. The cycle repeats as many times as Congress deems necessary.

This is a good start, but the process could be strengthened and improved in two ways. One, the recommendations should automatically take effect unless Congress affirmatively votes to reject it within a specified period of time, say, ten legislative days.

The successful military Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) of the 1990s — which is the inspiration for this Commission — used this “opt-out” approach and saved billions of dollars by closing unneeded military bases. Opt-out eliminates potential parliamentary maneuvering to prevent the package from ever coming to a vote.

The “opt-in” model in the King-Blunt bill could still work, but a BRAC-style opt-out would have a greater chance of successfully dealing with regulatory overreach.

Another improvement is a little outside the box. It would give a financial incentive to suggest rules to the Commission in the form of a finder’s fee. Agency employees and members of the public who suggest rules that are successfully repealed could be paid, say, $1,000 per million dollars saved compliance costs. Agency staff in particular have specialized knowledge that Commission members may lack. Spending some money to induce them to participate in the process could by definition save far more money than the finder’s fees would cost.

There are a lot of dead branches in the Code of Federal Regulations that need pruning. Since both regulatory agencies and congressmen generally detest this kind of yard work, a King-Blunt-style Regulatory Improvement Commission could be just the tool for the job. The still-struggling economy could use the help.