I’ll bet if you walked up to 100 people on the street and asked, “What is the Federal Register?,” very few, if any, would be able to correctly answer. Yet the Federal Register, often called simply the “FR,” is so completely intertwined with daily living in America that it is arguably the most important publication in the country.
The Federal Register is the place where all proposed and final regulations of the federal government are catalogued and published. If you want a hard copy of the 2013 Federal Register for your personal library, you’ll need to make space for volumes totaling close to 80,000 pages – up 76 percent since 1986. You can order an annual subscription to the Federal Register from the Government Printing Office for a mere $929.
When you hear complaints about over-regulation, it’s not just political posturing or self-interested grumbling from greedy business owners trying to get away with something. The federal government is producing a staggering volume of regulation. In the past 10 years, the number of regulations issued by federal agencies has outnumbered laws passed by Congress by 223 to one. And that’s before Obamacare.
As of now, there are 4,062 new regulations in various stages of implementation.
In the 20th century, America became strong because entrepreneurs and dreamers and the occasional crackpot enjoyed wide latitude to try things. When the Federal Register was first published in 1936, it contained a mere 2,600 pages. Since then, the U.S. economy has grown by a factor of 12 (in constant dollars) while the Federal Register has grown by a factor of 30.
The permanent federal bureaucracy – that part of the government that never faces the voters and is so entrenched as to be beyond the effective sanction of either the president or the Congress – cranks out rules in such volume that literally no one can keep up. In almost all cases, regulations have the force of law. Most federal agencies have their own police forces dedicated to enforcing the regulations that those agencies promulgate.
It is not unheard of for a regulation issued by one federal agency to be 180 degrees at odds with a regulation issued by some other federal agency.
Let me disclaim by saying that I recognize that regulations are necessary. Every game needs a set of rules and a referee otherwise there would be only chaos. But any good referee or umpire will tell you that the goal ultimately is to let the players play the game. Enact too many rules, or be too quick to throw a flag or blow the whistle, and the game becomes so rigid that no one will want to play.
So it is with regulation. The problem is not so much what a new regulation does to existing enterprise – although the cost of regulation falls disproportionately on small businesses. The problem lies more in the suffocating effect that heavy regulation has on innovation. Regulations don’t so much kill as prevent conception.
The last time the Federal Register contracted was during the Reagan administration, when the number of pages in the FR shrank by 31 percent. During that respite from regulatory expansion, the U.S. economy began its longest and most robust expansion in our nation’s history.
By way of contrast, today we have 12 million unemployed, another eight million under-employed and the most anemic post-recession recovery since we started keeping records.
Every time some bureaucrat writes a new rule to go with the thousands upon thousands of existing rules, the arteries of enterprise and commerce become incrementally more sclerotic and incrementally less capable of carrying economic vitality to every household in every corner of the continent.
The nation’s regulatory burden stands at an all-time high. Employment, expressed as the percentage of working-age Americans holding fulltime jobs, stands at an all time low.
That is not mere coincidence.