It has been said that no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while Congress is in session. While Congress can do plenty of damage all on its own, the regulations imposed by unelected federal bureaucrats are exacerbating the problem.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute reports that in 2015 there were 30 binding regulations issued for every law passed by Congress. These regulations cost the American economy an estimated $1.885 trillion — larger than the entire Russian economy. The staggering numbers suggest a reversal of an old joke: “In Soviet Russia, you break the rules; in administrative America, the rules break you.” These regulations starve the American economic engine and represent an affront to states’ authority.
President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order mandating the removal of two previous regulations for each new addition. Unfortunately, crudely hacking away at the regulatory state with the precision of a chain saw is not the answer. We need the prudent carving of a scalpel. There is a place for federal regulations, but many issues, such as education and environmental policy, would be best left to the states’ discretion.
The Department of Education begins its mission statement with, “Education is primarily a State and local responsibility.” Ironically, this ideal has been lost on the ED for decades. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, improved aspects of its predecessor by shifting some accountability to the states.
However, even this attempt to restore state power in education effectively re-endorsed federal control in public education. An endless stream of cookie-cutter accountability or testing requirements is not the way forward. Top-down control may be a good fit for small, homogenous populations in Scandinavia and Singapore, but it is failing America’s children. An equal and quality education for all students is noble and desirable, but ED’s tendency to overregulate prevents states from sufficiently tailoring education to the unique needs of their students.
A similar case can be made for moving environmental regulation to the states. EPA regulations alone account for nearly 20 percent of the total cost of regulation — the highest proportion among all regulatory departments and agencies. Some EPA standards aim to address health and safety issues but carry heavy economic tradeoffs and do little to improve conditions.
Utah experienced this when the EPA issued regulations requiring coal plants to use selective catalytic reduction (SCR). The technology has led to significant haze reductions in some parts of the country. However, research from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in conjunction with the EPA found this technology will do little to justify the $580 million price tag because of the state’s unique geography and climate. Inefficiencies abound with one-size-fits-all approaches, and individual states are better equipped to assess the marginal tradeoffs imposed by environmental regulations.
Despite these examples of egregious overreach, not every regulation should be abolished. An economics professor of mine once said of government regulation, “good regulation is good; bad regulation is bad.” This tongue-in-cheek assessment is both pragmatic and wise. Innovation and locally driven solutions at the state level are more likely to produce “good” regulations, while a lack of transparency and accountability at the federal level has left us too many “bad” regulations.
With Congress ever willing to oblige, regulators continue to write rules at an alarming pace — nearly 4,000 new additions in 2016, almost double the previous year’s total. In the interest of our nation’s continued economic prosperity and the integrity of our federalist republic, more regulatory authority should be returned to where it belongs: the states.
Mathew Madsen is an economic policy intern at Sutherland Institute.