President Obama Streamlining Regulations

Last week, President Obama ordered a review of US Regulations to remove rules perceived to be outdated, stifling job creation, and making our economy less competitive in the world marketplace. In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, he described it as thus:

“This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth. And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. It’s a review that will help bring order to regulations that have become a patchwork of overlapping rules, the result of tinkering by administrations and legislators of both parties and the influence of special interests in Washington over decades.”

President Obama raised the issue again in his State of the Union address, telling the audience:

“To reduce barriers to growth and investment, I’ve ordered a review of government regulations. When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce common-sense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe. It’s why we have speed limits and child labor laws. It’s why last year, we put in place consumer protections against hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies and new rules to prevent another financial crisis. And it’s why we passed reform that finally prevents the health insurance industry from exploiting patients.”

The White House issued a memorandum in support of the order that references the Regulatory Flexibility Act, 5 U.S.C. 601-612.

The President stated that “As the executive order I am signing makes clear, we are seeking more affordable, less intrusive means to achieve the same ends—giving careful consideration to benefits and costs. This means writing rules with more input from experts, businesses and ordinary citizens.” Perhaps the best way to bring some “common-sense” balance to bear on regulations is to encourage active public comment from the actual public, instead of just corporate and lobbyist interests. Robb Mandelbaum, writing for the NYT’s “You’re the Boss” blog raises this issue in his post, “Rewriting Regulation? Small Businesses Have Suggestions.” He quotes J. Craig Sherman, a vice president for the National Retail Federation, as saying “nobody outside of the Beltway or attorneys in the compliance business look at” the Federal Register, where most proposed regulations are posted for public comment. He points to a regulation that affects retail businesses that issue gift cards, posted under the ‘Amendments to the Bank Secrecy Act Regulation’s Definitions Concerning Prepaid Access.’ Retailers looking through the regulations were not properly noticed that this could affect them, since it sounds like a banking issue.

The federal government provides access to proposed regulations at Regulations.gov. There, you can search and browse proposed rules, read comments that have already been posted, and post your own. You can set an RSS feed to capture proposed regulations and other dockets on the site, as well.  Justia Regulation Tracker provides a similar feature, and I think it’s easier to use (biased, of course). At Cornell LII’s page, you can look up regulations based upon the section of US Code that they are drawn from. From the code page, click on the link to the right for “Parallel Authorities (CFR)” (I used the Regulatory Flexibility Act, mentioned above, as the example). The federal government also hosts a site called Exchange which is, in its own words,

“a forum for you to provide feedback on Regulations.gov and various Agency initiatives. Your contributions to the forum do not represent an official comment in the rulemaking process. If you wish to submit an official comment on a Federal Register document, please follow this link to Regulations.gov.”

It seems that regulations from one agency may touch many different kinds of businesses and operations, making it difficult for small business owners to tell which regulations will affect your business. If you are part of a trade organization, they should in theory do this work for you, but I can’t help thinking there must be an easier way to help the mom and pop businesses that may be affected. Perhaps allowing commenters to tag the field they are in when they submit? That way users could correlate by others in their field. You could search for, say, “retail,” “trucking” or “food service industry” and get an idea of who the regulation is relevant to. It would be a way to crowd-source a tagging effort.

The Exchange site proposes on solution to this, call “Regulated Sector Categories.” It is described as:

“Organizing regulatory actions using commonly referenced sector categories can improve the user’s browsing capabilities.  From the homepage, users could select their sector of interest (e.g., Defense, Energy, Environment, Finance, Health Care) which provides further context about the regulatory actions publicized by the federal executive departments and agencies.  After selecting the desired sector from the site’s homepage, users can explore proposed rules and rules associated with that sector, and then view the related docket materials and submit comments.”

This sounds promising, but the Exchange site is only for informal comments and discussions. Hopefully, this tool will link over to the Public Comment site, and users can comment on the different sectors that may be involved. Using the example from the NYT, someone who saw that a proposed rule titled “Banking” and categorized under “Finance” but also affected retailers would be able to cross-categorize or tag it as such. Otherwise, I envision the bureaucracy categorizing things under very broad sectors, which may not be all that helpful.

Here’s where the amazing third party site GovPulse comes in. GovPulse is designed to “open the doors of government to the people they work for. By making such documents as the Federal Register searchable, more accessible and easier to digest, GovPulse seeks to encourage every citizen to become more involved in the workings of their government and make their voice heard on the things that matter to them, from the smallest to the largest issues.” Using the site, you can search by topic (actual hand-created topics, not just the title of the rule or agency). They have a “Popular Topics” tag cloud which will tell you what people are reading. You can search by agency, date, and location. The location search is much friendlier than the one on the government sites. Contact info for Congressional Representatives, agency, and author are populated in the sidebar. The only problem with this site is I can’t find a link to submit a public comment directly. I have found links to regulations.gov, but they go to the home page, not the docket or proposal.

The Federal Register has a nice new interface, which includes an advanced search page that allows you to search by keyword, code section affected, and geographic area, among others. You can also subscribe to this feed, which is very useful. They also host an archive back to 1994. The site design was inspired and designed by the programmers behind GovPulse. The Editor of the Federal Register contacted the developers to work on the existing site to make it more user friendly and interactive. One of the goals of the new site was to connect with other federal regulatory agencies and sites, and because of this, users can review proposed rule and comments directly in the Docket and comment there, as well. It’s worth noting that GovPulse, and by extension, the new Federal Register site, came out of the data.gov initiative–both clear examples of successful third party applications developed to distribute government information.

From the perspective of someone who promotes access to free law, I support fewer and clearer regulations because it makes them easier to find and follow. This is good for business because it lends predictability and lessens risk. I’m more concerned, however, with giving consumers, business owners, and other stakeholders the means and opportunity to comment on these regulations. If we truly want to bring a common sense balance then we need a broader sample of opinions and comments on these proposals.