My Turn: Regulations in an imperfect people’s democracy.

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, January 1, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the nation has seen the economy grow an average of 1.5 percent per year. That’s not good enough according to Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan. “A huge part of the problem” he says, is that “our Federal Government wants to regulate everything.” That’s why he’s sponsoring the RED Tape Act, a cute acronym for Regulations Endanger Democracy. Ironically, the majority of regulations were driven into place by the will of the American people.

Sullivan mentioned his proposed legislation last week when he spoke to the joint Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. They were the perfect audience. The national body has an online slideshow titled “10 Shocking Facts About Regulation.” The first slide states the annual cost of federal regulations is a staggering $1.8 trillion.

That figure came from a 2010 Small Business Administration study, which Sullivan also referenced in August when he introduced the bill to the Senate.

“Let me be clear,” he said on the Senate floor. “Regulations are not all bad. Many of them keep us safe from harm.”

He’s right on that count. Because Congress began regulating air quality decades ago, American cities don’t have horrific smog problems like Beijing. Another example is automobile seat belts and air bags that Congress mandated be installed in all cars. Those have helped reduce highway injuries and fatalities.

So how much of the $1.8 trillion is offset by improvements like these? What about the value Americans get from similar kind of protections on food, drugs and other consumer products?

Well, the authors of the SBA didn’t address the benefits of any regulation. They called that “an important challenge that would be a logical next step toward achieving a rational regulatory system.”

That means the $1.8 trillion figure isn’t all waste and inefficiency. Even if it sounds like we’re being strangled by regulatory red tape, I think Sullivan chose the acronym as a way to slam the so-called liberal enablers of big government.

Political theater like this is evident in Sullivan’s Oct. 30 press release promoting his bill. He implied that the sluggish economic growth was a matter of inaction by President Obama. But the fact is the eight-year average of economic growth under President Bush wasn’t much better. And it would have been much worse if the artificial housing bubble hadn’t floated above a weak financial regulatory system.

Now, I’m not arguing that all existing regulations are necessary. A good example of one that needs fixing is the EPA emission restrictions on portable incinerators. Sullivan told the Senate how those rules are preventing rural Alaskan communities from finding a practical means for trash disposal.

He gave a few other examples, but those weren’t targeted by the EPA, which he and many Alaskans claim is the most burdensome regulatory agency in the country. That may be because the $281 billion cost of environmental regulation represents only 16 percent of the total. The SBA study shows occupational safety and health, Homeland Security and tax rules account for another 13 percent. The remaining $1.2 trillion is from economic regulations such as product safety, import restrictions, antitrust and telecommunications policies.

The SBA does point out how much costly EPA rules impact manufacturers. But without the environmental laws they enforce, manufacturing plant exhaust stacks and toxic liquid wastes would probably resume being the biggest point sources of pollutants in the country.

In fact, it was the Cuyahoga River in 1969 that led to the passage of the Clean Water Act. That didn’t happen because manufacturers or Congress cared. The river in Ohio had burned at least a dozen times before that. But it became the flashpoint for citizens around the country after Time magazine published an exposé on the 1969 fire.

Sullivan should know all about those fires because the river flows through Cuyahoga County where he was born and raised. Those kind of stories should also remind us that most environmental regulations were created after a public outcry over serious problems.

If the same is true on rules governing all economic activity, then Sullivan’s RED Tape Act won’t be the panacea to revive American’s economic engine like he promises. Instead, a lot of money will be spent chasing regulatory bogeymen down a maze of rabbit holes to learn it’s not about the federal government’s affinity to regulate everything. It’s how our imperfect democracy works on behalf of the American people.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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