Searching for a little balance

Published 8:17 pm Saturday, January 29, 2011

By J. Randy Forbes

It’s the light bulb in your Farm Fresh. It’s the refrigerator in the little bakery down the street. It’s the plant food used at the nursery where you stop each spring to buy supplies for your garden. It’s the water hose you use to do your at-home car wash. It’s the shampoo you buy when you visit the salon.

As Americans, we come in contact with hundreds of items in our daily lives that are subject to federal regulations. In fact, it is nearly impossible to leave for work each morning without coming in contact with objects that are federally regulated: the bread you toast, the toaster you toast it with, the electrical socket you plug the toaster into, the car you sit in, the seatbelt you wear in the car…

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Not all regulations are bad, nor are all regulations completely inconsistent with free-market principles. The ability of the federal government to set parameters for the basic protection of American citizens is important.

We see this with over-the-counter and prescription drugs, with anti-fraud measures, and with the preservation of our natural resources as seen most recently with the BP oil spill.

However, there has to be some level of examination to ensure the federal government is not overstepping its bounds. Also, there is a cost associated with each regulation — both to our economy and our pocketbooks — and Americans deserve to know that the costs are justifiable in terms of the benefit they provide.

In 2010, unelected bureaucrats in Washington issued 95 new “major” regulatory rules that cost our economy billions of dollars by imposing them on businesses, families, and local governments. These 95 “major rules” had an economic effect of more than $100 million each, and they do not include the thousands of regulations that were imposed that are not considered “major rules.”

In fact, the General Accountability Office reports that in the four fiscal years from 1996 to 1999, a total of 15,286 new federal regulations went into effect. Nearly all of these regulations are done via rule-making rather than democratic consent.

Here’s how: every year, federal agencies issue thousands of regulations impacting all areas of the United States economy. The regulations are legally binding, but Congress never has to vote on them or approve them.

These regulations can be on anything from restricting certain light bulbs to requiring certain heaters or roofs to changing how an industry compensates its employees. They come from unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies.

This bureaucratic “rule-making” is a part of a disturbing trend in Washington. The regulations span from attempts to control the Internet, to the environment, to the financial industry, to healthcare and just about any product, service or industry in our country.

The barrage of regulations has caused consumer costs to rise and businesses to become reluctant to invest or grow. According to a report released by the Small Business Administration, total regulatory costs amount to about $1.75 trillion annually, nearly twice as much as all individual income taxes collected last year.

Had every U.S. household paid an equal share of the federal regulatory burden, each would have owed $15,586 in 2008.

Most recently, we have seen this bureaucratic rule-making with major financial and healthcare legislation. For example, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service reports that the new healthcare law “gives federal agencies substantial responsibility and authority to ‘fill in the details’ of the legislation through subsequent regulations.”

The Constitution gives Congress the duty to make laws, not to pass fuzzy ideas off to federal bureaucrats to interpret how the laws should look or to “fill in the details” with regulations.

During the past several years, Congress has shown disregard for its constitutional duty by allowing the executive branch to fill in important details of legislation after it is passed. Likewise, the executive branch has been quick to overstep its authority to use the rulemaking process to circumvent the will of the people.

One of the reasons the Constitution gives the lawmaking, or rulemaking, duty specifically to Congress is because representatives are held directly accountable for their actions by the people that they represent.

We need to restore a system of checks and balances to federal regulations. This week, I cosponsored a bill that would ensure legislative accountability in Congress and restore the constitutional balance of powers. It would require Congress to take an up-or-down vote on every government regulation deemed a “major rule” before it can be imposed on the American people and businesses.

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would do just what it says: rein in the costly overreach of federal agencies that stifles job creation and hinders economic growth. Members of Congress should never have an option to avoid responsibility for the effects of the laws they pass.

The bill ensures the responsibility for Congressional decisions is placed on representatives in Congress, as was intended by our founders.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s 4th Congressional District. Contact him at (202) 225 – 6365.