As part of our mission to keep government accountable and expose waste and abuse, Watchdog.org launched a Regulations beat, tapping longtime Watchdog reporter Eric Boehm (pictured below) to keep tabs on how the regulatory state is weakening our economy and undermining personal freedom.
He recently took a break from covering the absurd doings and autocratic facets of the regulatory state to answer a few questions about the regulatory issues facing America today:
Franklin Center: Is there any particular void or overlooked angle in the media’s coverage of regulations that Watchdog.org helps fill? Why is the Regulations beat important?
Eric Boehm: Aside from a few publications that cover federal regulations from a very technical perspective (stuff like The Hill and Roll Call, etc), there’s not a lot of media coverage of regulatory issues, and almost none of it at the state level. That’s understandable, on one hand, because the media likes to cover politics as if it was a sporting event – every story has to be a Democrat vs. Republican thing – and regulatory stories don’t often fit that mold. But on the other hand, that’s a real shame because the regulatory state affects regular people in far more ways than the results of the Iowa caucuses ever will. When the media does cover regulatory issues, too often it parrots the government’s point of view – that is, that regulations are necessary to “protect” some group from harm in the marketplace. The people harmed by excessive regulations are generally unseen and their stories aren’t told.
FC: One of the most interesting and worrisome stories you’ve written lately was about regulatory “dark matter” – an issue that doesn’t seem to get much press. What is this “dark matter”, exactly, and what should Americans know about it?
EB: That’s a term coined by Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. God bless that man, because his job basically entails trying to track every new federal regulation and rule. There are a few thousand of those created every year by various federal agencies. Those agencies are told to create new regulations by Congress or by executive order. But then there’s a whole collection of informal regulations that never go through the proper rule-making process but are adopted by the bureaucratic agencies anyway. Crews says there have been 500,000 of those issued since 1994, and they take lots of different forms. A good way to think about it is like this: Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, and the ACA empowered lots of federal agencies to create lots of new regulations (the FDA’s new rule about calorie counts on menus, for example). But then the White House decided to issue a one-year delay on the law’s mandate that all businesses provide health insurance for their employees. They made that decision and announced it in a blog post, never approved by any agency (in this case it should have gone through the Department of Labor) and yet it was treated as if that declaration was equal to any other aspect of the law or regulations created as part of the law. That’s what he means by “dark matter.”
FC: What is your sense of government regulations in America in general – should we be optimistic or pessimistic about it?
EB: I’m generally pessimistic about almost everything connected to government. We’re over-regulated because there is a sense that government is supposed to protect us from all forms of harm. That’s not what government does. Government does a good job of serving a judicial role and meeting out justice after harms have occurred, but when it starts trying to stop things before they happen, that’s usually not good – that’s Phillip K. Dick territory.
FC: Do you know of any states or cities that have been successful in repealing and rolling back onerous regulations?
EB: My current home state of Minnesota did a legislative “un-session” a few years ago, which I don’t think anyone else has copied. It was a several-week period where lawmakers met like usual, but the only bills that could be introduced or considered were bills that removed or deleted elements of the state code. I thought that was a good idea, since governments love to make new rules but rarely go back through the books to delete outdated laws or cut regulations that don’t work. Virginia right now is working on repealing, or at least rewriting, some onerous healthcare regulations that drive up the cost of care and limit access. Those are positive signs.
FC: What are some hot regulatory issues/legislation to watch this year?
EB: The ongoing fight over how the “sharing economy” will be regulated is probably (still) the biggest thing. This is one area where the federal government hasn’t meddled too much. So states and local governments are performing their duties as laboratories of democracy and everyone is kind of taking their own approach. That means there will be mistakes – like Chicago’s proposed ordinance that would throw Airbnb users in jail for six months if they violate even a single part of the city’s new rules – but hopefully governments will be able to learn from those bad examples.
FC: Anything else you’d like to say about the Regulations beat that readers should know?
EB: Earlier you asked if I was optimistic or pessimistic about all this. Maybe the better word would be “skeptical.” My liberal friends like to argue with me by pointing out that regulations and government force helped curb things like 80-hour work weeks and industrial-level pollution. Yes, government can sometimes be a force for good, but I think we’re long past the point of diminishing returns when it comes to government involvement in private decisions. A regulation that says you can’t dump untreated industrial waste into rivers? Sure, that’s a solid idea that benefits the general health and well-being of everyone. But now we’ve reached the point where governments are banning plastic bags and where the city government in Seattle is deputizing trash collectors to issue fines for people who throw food in the trash instead of composting it.