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Posted at 5:05 PM ET, 12/13/2010

Paygo for regulations?

By Ezra Klein

Mark Warner is pushing a proposal to apply the logic of Pay-Go to regulations: The legislation "would require federal agencies to identify and eliminate one existing regulation for each new regulation they want to add."

There's a part of me that finds this intuitively appealing. Government is worst when it's not regularly pruned. That goes for the defense budget, which politicians are too scared to touch, the tax code, which they're too intimidated to touch, and usually goes for entitlements, though Medicare got a pretty good overhaul in the health-care bill.

Warner's argument is that regulations belong in that class, and he's almost certainly right: There's not an obvious process for clearing the brush away. But it's not clear to me that his solution -- a one-in, one-out rule -- makes sense either. You can see the unintended consequences flowing in all different directions, from a preference for bigger, blunter regulations so you wouldn't have to identify as many to remove to an incentive to solve problems by spending money rather than promulgating rules (i.e., you can pass a regulation saying coal plants can't do something or you can pass a law paying them not to do something).

Warner notes that Britain has begun a version of this one-in, one-out process, but it's quite new, and so it's hard to say how well it's working. Anyone have any data on that? Or a better idea for how you bring some scrutiny to existing regulations without compromising future ones?

By Ezra Klein  | December 13, 2010; 5:05 PM ET
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The Office of Management and Budget can scrutinize all new regulations but once in place, I'm not sure they have a role going forward. Once in place it's up to Congressional oversight committees to keep tabs on what is going on. In some areas this ends up being more of witch hunt than informed oversight as per what Senator Warner is proposing (look and see what the new House does with EPA this coming year).

Posted by: agoldhammer | December 13, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

What a filthy lying sh*tbag hypocrite.

What about all those regulations in health care and financial reform? Forgot to paygo, eh.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 13, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

The idea is so stupid that only a member of the Washington Post would support it. But hey I guess when you income comes from defrauding low income workers through bogus education opportunities regulations do seem like a bad thing.

Posted by: endaround | December 13, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree. What an exceedingly insane idea, as if we all agree that there are so many pointless regulations that it will pose no irreparable harm to banish them, willy nilly.

The agency directors should have the people who report to them notify them when a regulation seems to have a harmful effect, investigate and make recommendations. Or does that procedure seem too tiresome for DLC and Republican hacks?

Posted by: uberblonde1 | December 13, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

C'mon Ezra, say it ain't so! What do you want? In turn for passing carbon regulation, repeal, say, the Clean Water Act? Regulations aren't money. Also, regulation is the purview of the executive branch, not Congress. We elect an administration, they make rules within the framework of the law and hopefully based on what they campaigned on. If we don't like it, we don't reelect them.

Posted by: gingles | December 13, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

What an idiotic idea. And pointing us to look at how it's helped Britain's economy? What is Warner thinking?

Posted by: pjro | December 13, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

That makes no sense, if a regulation's cost exceeds its benefits it should be stricken, if benefits exceeds its costs it should be kept (though if it can reformed in such a way to make the benefit to cost ratio even bigger, then amend away).

I'm curious if Warner's "rule on regulations" would be 1 regulation in, 1 regulation out or perhaps, X dollar value of regulations in, X dollar value of regulations out? And would the regulation trade off be from the same agency, or could the Administration gut, say, aviation safety in favor of strengthening food safety?

In short, its a dumb idea. A better play would be to order each agency (per some kind of government-wide OMB criteria) to rank their regulations by cost-benefit ratio. Anything under 1.0 should be junked.

Posted by: beowulf_ | December 13, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Warner's collection of paragraph's doesn't warrant being called an 'essay'. It has no supporting statements or examples to demonstrate his point.

Grade = Incomplete. He might have a point, but he hasn't made it.

BTW, isn't Pay-Go itself a regulation? Discuss...

Posted by: JkR- | December 13, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

The one-in-one-out rule does seem arbitrary. And from my perspective at least, our problems today have to do with too little regulation instead of too much.

However, both of the unintended consequences you cite sound like positives to me. I especially like the preference for using money instead of new regulations since it seems like our current legislative process prefers to obscure costs by regulating formally private money.

Posted by: dreyno85 | December 13, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Have to agree it's not a good idea. Warner writes as if he believes in the immaculate conception of regulations, that they spring forth from the forehead of some faceless bureaucrat, whereas the truth is every regulation has some roots in a piece of legislation passed by Congress. If you want to do away with obsolete regulations, do away with the law.

That idea was part of the Carter administration's logic for sunsetting programs. They also started the semiannual regulatory agenda OMB assembles and publishes. Warner should try to refine and improve ongoing efforts, rather than make a name for himself by a stand-alone project.

Posted by: bharshaw | December 13, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

OK, all, hold your horses...

I personally have long thought that when we elect, every two, four and six years, people whose job is to create laws that they're then going to see their job as creating laws.

Inevitably, we're going to end up with a lot of needless laws or, at the very least, a lot of laws that eventually outlive their urgency and usefulness. There are things that might not make sense now that did 100 years ago... I can think of a mining act that still gives almost obscenely low rates to mine federal lands because it simply hasn't been properly revisited in an age and a half.

Agreed, "willy/nilly," swap-one-for-one doesn't make a lot of sense, but the idea of setting up some practical, mandatory means of revisiting old acts and regulations seems like an idea with some merit. I suspect that's what Ezra is agreeing with; as a matter of fact, I do too.

Posted by: shantyhag | December 13, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

sorry but the idea makes no sense. i'm a tax lawyer and spend more than half my work day reading regulations. sure there are regs that i don't like. but the regulations, along with the congressional statutes that grant treasury (in this case) the authority to draft regulations, form a latticework of cross-referential law. you can't easily delete a random regulation you don't like anymore than you can delete a sentence in a novel. once you figure out how you want to change the law, you can figure out if it'll take fewer or more regulations--which is to say, the number of regulations is completely arbitrary and insignificant.

Posted by: radiganbrian | December 13, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

It's not PAYGO for regulation. It's CAP AND TRADE for regulation.

It caps the total economic impact of regulation at a certain level, and if the government wishes to issue a regulation, it must trade regulations of equal or greater economic impact for it.

That idea might make sense if you believe that regulation is like pollution and as any amount is undesirable, anything that limits it is good.

But regulations aren't pollution. Ideally, they're the opposite. Every regulation should be an economic positive. It should be a net improvement in the life, health, and well-being of the people.

The more I think about it, the more I think the entire premise of the legislation is flawed. It assumes that the "economic impact" of regulation is always negative; there is no suggestion that the "economic impact" might be positive.

Is it possible under this legislation for a regulation to have a positive "economic impact"? Could the agency use the positive "economic impact" of one regulation of offset the negative "economic impact" of another? I doubt it.

And the argument for it is deceitful. The argument for it is, effectively, that regulation should be optimized to maximize efficiency. No one would disagree with that.

But the solution offered does nothing to ensure that regulations are more efficient. It merely ensures that regulations don't exceed some maximum cost. Which may or may not be efficient.

Feh. Bad idea. Unless, of course, you want to see more people harmed and killed due to lax regulation.

Posted by: dcamsam | December 13, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: keyli96 | December 14, 2010 2:55 AM | Report abuse

This idea is almost totally unworkable.

How would amendments or changes to regulation work, for example? Would you have to drop something every time you wanted to add a substance to the Clean Air Act? What about the many new regulations needed every time Congress itself changes virtually any law? When Congress chooses to be intentionally vague about something, it's the agency that has to carry weight to make those words legally active -- now you're going to expect them to go back and almost arbitrarily sacrifice other regs as part of the process?

What about emergency situations? How much of the federal government would have had to be sacrificed to enact the TARP rules, for example? Or the drilling moratorium after the BP spill? How much would those snap decisions destabilize industries that rely on those regs?

There are already a ton of pointless Congressional mandates explicitly designed to interfere with the regulatory process. The Paperwork Reduction Act, Regulatory Impact Assessments (and even NEPA at times). The real effect of these is to just make actual "notice and comment" rulemaking a huge pain the ass. Instead, necessary government activity has increasingly moved into less publicly accountable, or judicially reviewable, methods. How much would Warner's rule accelerate that process?

If Warner really thinks this is a problem, this is something Congress has a ton of power over. Hold some hearings or commission some experts to do an agency review. Or get Obama to mandate something like that from the White House. Identifying obsolete regs should be a lot easier than, say, proposing a balanced budget. But this kind of strict "ehh, I don't want to think about it, just like fix it man..." rule would not be a solution.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 14, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

I'm with Duncan Black of eschatonblog who asks Mark Warner to name one regulation that is keeping the economy from growing and should be repealed.

Just empty talk which allows Congress to look like it is doing something. But even here it smacks of corporate capture.

Does anyone care about the unemployment problem? 9.8 percent.

As others have commented, this is an incredibly stupid and unworkable idea. Shame on the Post editorial team for giving stupid a home on the op-ed page.

Posted by: grooft | December 14, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

I personally like the idea of every single government law and regulation having a sunset period so that periodically congress would have to vote to keep them around. That way a regulation or law passed would be scrutinized for modern effectivity. Does a law passed a hundred years ago or even twenty years ago still have revelance today?

Posted by: RobT1 | December 14, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I personally like the idea of every single government law and regulation having a sunset period so that periodically congress would have to vote to keep them around. That way a regulation or law passed would be scrutinized for modern effectivity. Does a law passed a hundred years ago or even twenty years ago still have revelance today?

Posted by: RobT1 | December 14, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

How about a rule that Congress cannot add regulations unless the agency to which the regulation is being added has been certified as fully-staffed and fully funded for the task?
That, and I like the sunset provisions except I see large omnibus bills being used at the start or end of each session.

Posted by: ctown_woody | December 14, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

This is nutty. Two points:

1) At my agency, we strike regulations fairly frequently. I'm working on a proposal to strike one right now that just got public notice. But we would start hoarding them like acorns if we needed to do 1-for-1 swaps.

2) Every once in a while, Congress passes a new law mandating that my agency take on new roles -- which, of course, means new regulations. But Congress hasn't repealed our old laws. So if we did 1-for-1 swaps, we'd be violating our substantive law in order to obey a procedural law.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | December 14, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

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