There are few things worse than red tape, and in government there is plenty to go around. That’s why House Speaker Paul Ryan’s latest regulatory-reform plan can’t be dismissed entirely. Just mostly.
Start with the worthwhile stuff. Making agencies coordinate better on rules that overlap is a good idea, as is offering longer public comment periods for the most sweeping regulations. It also makes sense to make routine the process by which agencies review old regulations to ensure they’re still necessary. And wider use of sunset provisions could help reduce regulatory overload.
The plan also contains more dubious ideas. It endorses the notion of the so-called regulatory budget — basically, capping the number of regulations any agency could issue (or requiring that any new rule be accompanied by the elimination of an old one). It’s an appealing concept but the way to go about pruning them is to judge each on its merits. And if the idea is to reduce regulations, this proposal would have no effect.
It’s also worth noting that the cost-benefit analysis that Ryan is calling for is already happening. Such analysis of new rules has taken place in the executive branch at least since Ronald Reagan was president. Ryan would require such analysis by law, and extend it to the handful of agencies where it is not now the practice.
The trick with regulatory reform is not to be naive about it. By necessity, the process of rule making straddles the line between the possible and the necessary. Some members of Congress will always be dissatisfied with this or that regulation. That doesn’t mean they should have the right to rewrite or eliminate it. Congress needs to rely on the executive branch to further define and enforce the laws it passes.
That’s why Ryan’s comment when he introduced his plan is so worrisome: “No major regulation should become law,” he said, “unless Congress takes a vote.” Not only does this misunderstand Congress’s role, but it is also tantamount to eliminating all new major regulation.