A few weeks ago we had a terrific discussion on the site about our wish list of fundamental reforms to the federal government. Several of you rightly noted the need to recalibrate Washington by shifting the ever-growing power of the administrative state back to our elected officials. A lecture by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffit, transcribed in the newest digest from Heritage's Center for Policy Innovation (links to a PDF) underscores just how severe the problem has become:
Since president Obama took office in 2009, federal agencies issued 106 major regulations with an annual additional cost to the economy of $46 billion. In 2010, economists with the Small Business Administration estimated that the total cost of America’s regulatory burden reached $1.75 trillion— more than twice what Americans pay in individual income taxes.
In 2010 alone, Congress enacted 217 bills that became law, but that same year, federal agencies issued 3,573 final rules covering a wide variety of economic activities.
A bit of anecdotal background: my first job in politics was working as a staffer in the House Government Affairs Committee of the Tennessee General Assembly, one of the responsibilities of which was serving as the committee of first jurisdiction on changes or additions to the state's rules and regulations. Watching elected officials attempt to vet thousands of pages of highly technical bureaucratic minutiae in a single 45-minute committee hearing was enough to make anyone question whether representative democracy could coexist with the administrative state.
Generally, more than 99 percent of the regulations would pass, unremarked upon, by voice vote. The only exceptions would be narrow areas where a few savvy lobbyists had decided to make a stand (the final year I engaged in this exercise featured a showdown between representatives of the state's optometrists and opticians, the Hatfields and McCoys of eye care). The vast majority of state legislators gave no thought to the process beyond what an annoyance it was. In effect, the sheer scope of regulatory power made the idea of legislative oversight risible. Given the opportunity to defer to regulators, legislators would take the opportunity nearly every time. That's why the responsibility has to be placed squarely at the feet of elected officials.
At a certain point, the depth of the bureaucracy's reach -- and the dim prospects for reform -- make this problem seem too daunting to be tackled. But allow me to make a very simple suggestion for those who seek to make a difference as citizens rather than as politicians or pundits: tell your friends about it.
I'm consistently amazed at how few individuals -- even among the politically informed -- are aware that so much government power exists independent of laws passed by the Congress or signed by the President. And we miss some golden opportunities. How much of the fight over the Obama Administration's contraception mandate, for example, featured reference to the fact that the policy grew out of HHS fiat, not a law of the Congress? Some, but not enough.
I'm optimistic enough to believe that the American electorate -- regardless of individual ideology -- will bridle at the growth of the administrative state if they learn more about it. We may be a nation polarized on substantive policy matters, but -- apart from the progressive elite -- I doubt there's much of an appetite anywhere on the political spectrum for centralizing power in institutions in which the voice of the governed is advisory at best and dross at worst.