The Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival is taking place right now and I’ve noticed folks posting their own “big ideas”. Here’s my big idea of late: make Congress vote on regulations that cost over a certain amount.
There are two ways government can spend money. First by raising revenues through taxation and other means and then spending them money, and second by making private parties take actions that requires them to spend money. By some estimates, regulations cost Americans over $1 trillion a year. The folks who draft and pass these regulations are not elected and therefore don’t face political consequences for their actions. This creates a problem of accountability.
My colleague Maurice McTigue, who was a cabinet minister in New Zealand, has told me often how in his country parliament must vote on regulations before they can take effect. That’s a reform I’d love to see in this country, but I’m not holding my breath. Rightly or wrongly, Congress has happily delegated a lot of minutiae that arguably requires professional expertise to regulatory agencies. Congress is not about to take take back the decision-making on the thousands of regulations that are promulgated each year.
However, there’s a much more manageable number of regulations we might reasonably expect Congress to find the time to ponder. These are proposed rules known as “major” or “economically significant” regulations. The Congressional Review Act defines these as those proposed rules that are “like to result in an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” or otherwise have a “significant adverse effect” on the economy. In 2007, these totaled 85, and ranged from “Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment” to “Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards”. Getting Congress to take an up-or-down vote on these should go a long way to restore some accountability for regulations.
There’s a lot to work out about this proposal. Who determines whether a rule qualifies as economically significant? Won’t agencies just issue two small rules rather than one big one? Will Congress be able to amend the regulations? Etc. It’s a start though. I’d love to hear any comments you might have. I’d especially would love to know if this idea is original or if it’s ever been proposed before.