Federal regulations affect almost every aspect of our lives, yet their impacts aren’t at all transparent. Like spending programs, government regulations pursue policies to achieve important social goals, such as clean air or food safety. But, unlike spending programs financed through taxes, neither Congress nor the president is accountable to the public for whether those goals are achieved or how much they cost. Instead, unelected bureaucrats in Washington issue thousands of new regulations each year, adding new regulations on top of old, with little accountability or transparency.
Improving this regulatory system is challenging. While we all know how much we pay in taxes, regulatory costs are less visible; they are hidden in higher product prices, lower wages, innovations not seen and slower economic growth. It’s impossible to measure these costs with any confidence, but some researchers estimate that Americans pay more in this hidden regulatory tax than they do in income tax. Regulations often benefit vocal special interests under the guise of protecting everyday Americans, making it hard to discuss their impacts rationally. In the hyper partisan environment of Washington, D.C., it’s hard to imagine a path toward reforming a regulatory system that has not kept up with the realities of modern society.
And yet, a bipartisan group of senators, led by North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, recently managed to find such a path. They introduced the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017 to promote “transparency, accountability and common sense in the regulatory process.”
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First, the RAA would make the regulatory system more transparent by engaging public input on different options well before regulations are enforced as law. In doing so, it would update regulatory procedures that haven’t changed in more than 70 years.
Second, it would ensure that new rules are based on the best available scientific and technical evidence, and that members of the public have opportunities to examine and comment on that evidence. Based on this information, the bill would direct government agencies not to issue regulations that do more harm than good. It would also direct them to choose regulatory options that achieve goals as cost-effectively as possible. Every president for the past 40 years has adopted these common-sense principles and it’s high time Congress codified them in law so the public can hold agencies accountable for following them.
Third, the RAA would require more thorough examination and public review of rules that are expected to have economic impacts greater than $1 billion per year. Over the last 10 years, an increasing number of these “high-impact” rules have been issued without rigorous scrutiny of the assumptions on which they are based or what their real impacts will be.
Finally, the RAA would require federal agencies to examine the regulations that are in place. Currently, regulators tend to issue new regulations on top of old, with very little effort to understand the cumulative effect of different requirements. This bill’s requirement to look at whether existing regulations are having their intended effects would not only reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, but would improve future regulations by providing valuable insights about what does and doesn’t work.
Whether Heitkamp and Portman can bring their warring parties together to pass the bill remains to be seen, but the RAA shows what can be achieved when elected officials consider their constituents’ best interests.
Susan Dudley is the director of the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and a distinguished professor of practice at GW's Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.