Tallying the Historic Regulatory Burden

Taxes have a higher profile (especially on Tax Day today), but regulations may carry a bigger share of the blame when the topic is government getting in the way of business growth and development. Consider these numbers, just part of a yearly comprehensive report from the Competitive Enterprise Institite:

  • The Federal Register stands at an all-time record-high 81,405 pages.
  • In 2010, federal agencies issued 3,573 final rules.
  • While agencies issued 3,573 final rules, Congress passed and the president signed into law a comparatively “few” 217 bills. Considerable lawmaking power is delegated to unelected bureaucrats at agencies, an abuse addressed recently in proposals such as the REINS Act.
  • Alarmingly, proposed rules in the Federal Register have surged from 2,044 in 2009 to 2,439 in 2010, a jump of 19.3 percent.
  • Of the 4,225 rules now in the regulatory pipeline, 224 are “economically significant” meaning they wield at least $100 million in economic impact—this is an increase of 22 percent over 2009’s 184 rules.
  • Given 2010’s government spending (outlays) of $3.456 trillion, the regulatory “hidden tax” of $1.75 trillion stands at an unprecedented 50.7 percent of the level of federal spending itself.
  • Regulatory costs exceed all 2008 corporate pretax profits of $1.463 trillion.
  • Regulatory costs dwarf corporate income taxes of $157 billion.
  • Regulatory costs tower over the estimated 2010 individual income taxes of $936 billion by 87 percent—nearly double the level.
  • Regulatory costs of $1.75 trillion absorb 11.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at $14.649 trillion in 2010.
  • Combining regulatory costs with federal FY 2010 outlays of $3.456 trillion reveals a federal government whose share of the entire economy now reaches 35.5 percent.

Wayne Crews, author of Ten Thousand Commandments:  An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State, says, “Trillion-dollar deficits and regulatory costs approaching $2 trillion annually are both unsettling new developments for America.  Every year, the federal government blows past previous deficit, debt, and regulatory burdens with no end in sight. No wonder Americans are fed up with Washington.”

Check out the full report.

Regulatory Relief or Justification?

A serious effort to reach out to job-creating businesses and stimulate economic growth or a political move now that the road to change in Congress is much less friendly? Reactions to President Obama’s call for reviewing federal health and safety regulations that might be too burdensome on business vary from those two camps to a few areas in between.

Two different perspectives, first from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has its doubts; second a CNBC analysis, which indicates the results might be surprising. As always, we’re interested in your take.

This executive order is hardly a war on red tape, and no affected businesses or consumers are going to be able to sue anybody to force compliance — it’s just an “order” to agencies to behave, says CEI’s Wayne Crews. 

Actually confronting regulation, the crippling extent of which remains unappreciated by both parties, requires going far beyond the words of an executive order. Some options include:

  • Implement a bi-partisan “Regulatory Reduction Commission” to vote up or down annually on a package of rules to eliminate.
  • Institute a moratorium or freeze on regulatory rulemaking now.
  • Hold hearings on Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) “one-in, one-out” requirement for any new rule.
  • Rediscover federalism, that is, circumscribe the federal regulatory role regarding health and safety matters best left to states.
  • Enlarge regulatory flexibility and exemptions for small business.
  • Establish an annual Presidential address or statement on the state of regulation and its impact on productivity and GDP.
  • Sunset regulations after fixed period unless explicit reauthorization is made.
  • Implement a supermajority requirement for extraordinarily costly mandates.

As for CNBC.com, Senior Editor John Carney writes:

NBC news reports that the efforts will be run out of Cass Sunstein’s office inside the Office of Management and Budget. That’s hardly surprising. The entire op-ed reads as if Sunstein had a large role in authoring it. He’s long been an advocate of cost-benefit analysis of government regulation.

It’s important to note that in Sunstein’s interpretation, cost-benefit analysis does not have the implicitly libertarian outcomes that the leftist critics and some free market types expect. Indeed, it could be that both the critics and friends of this new executive order will be surprised.

Sunstein’s cost-benefit analysis, for instance, could well be used to support greater regulation of hedge funds or a stronger version of the Volcker Rule by pointing to the relatively modest costs involved and the potential costs of possible systemic risks. In advance of actually doing the cost-benefit analysis, we cannot know if any particular regulation will pass muster.

I suspect that in actual operation, we’ll discover that Sunstein-ian cost-benefit analysis is modestly pro-regulation. Especially when regulators are allowed to include vague things such as how a regulation impacts on equity, this kind of “watch the consequences” analysis is pretty open-ended and far more subjective than it might seem.