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Getting What We Need from Washington

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For about 15 minutes, ObamaCare had been ruled unconstitutional. At least, that’s what those watching CNN on June 28 were being told. Then, on further review, the network changed its mind. ObamaCare lived, albeit in a Supreme Court-edited form.


Oh, well. In our hyper-connected world, anyone can get things wrong in the heat of the moment. This was merely a Supreme Court case that will affect the future of about a fifth of the nation’s GDP. It’s not as if the network misreported something important, such as where Wolf Blitzer was when he found out Osama bin Laden had been killed. (In his kitchen, apparently).

CNN’s misstep neatly highlights an important feature of 21st century life.

For most of human existence, information was a specialty good. It was expensive and difficult to come by. For example, Andrew Jackson earned fame for winning the Battle of New Orleans after the treaty ending the War of 1812 had been signed at Ghent, Belgium. But how could Jackson have known the war was over, since information took weeks to cross the Atlantic?

Throughout history, generals and admirals have won or lost battles because of a lack of information. This continues right up to modern times: The Japanese enjoyed a successful attack on Pearl Harbor because the Americans had no idea they were coming. But just a few months later, the U.S. had broken the Japanese secret code. That information was key to American victory in the Battle of Midway.

Today, however, information is a commodity. We want it to be everywhere and instantly available to everyone. And for the most part, it is -- if you know where to look. Even as CNN was racing to get incorrect information about the Supreme Court ruling on the air, for example, SCOTUSblog took longer to report anything, but ended up getting the information right. The blog’s experienced reporters and court-watchers knew not to jump at Chief Justice Roberts’ Commerce Clause head fake.


Sadly, though, there’s still at least one place where it’s difficult to get the information we need: From a federal government that’s steadily more involved in our lives, but doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.

Consider energy policy. Americans don’t need (or want) a federal energy policy. We all need energy, we all use energy, and Washington has nothing to do with that. What the feds do is artificially limit our access to energy by making it more expensive through regulations. And it’s difficult to figure out what the feds will decide to regulate.

Some activists, for example, want the federal government to regulate hydraulic fracturing, the wildly successful extraction process that’s already generated stunning amounts of American oil and natural gas. The Interior Department, not surprisingly, wants to do just that.

What agency wouldn’t want to increase its power and influence? The EPA may also get into the regulatory picture. “In 2005 Congress reaffirmed that it did not want the EPA to do so under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” The Wall Street Journal reported last year. “But the EPA wants to muscle in.”

What will all this mean for fracking? Well, when the EPA gets involved, issues tend to be both confusing and expensive. In an article about the agency’s Boiler MACT standards, the law firm McGuireWoods warns that, “All of this activity leaves companies and public entities with hardly any guidance as what the rules are and when these issues will be resolved. Moving forward with plans or projects will require careful assessment of their current obligations and future requirements.”


And that’s exactly the point: By making it risky to move forward, the federal government is making it less likely that companies will expand. And EPA’s not the sole culprit.

There’s also Dodd-Frank, the massive bill that was supposed to fix the banking industry after the 2008 meltdown. “As of July 2, 2012, a total of 221 Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirement deadlines have passed. Of these 221 passed deadlines, 140 (63 percent) have been missed and 81 (37 percent) have been met with finalized rules,” reports the Davis Polk law firm.

Notice that these laws and regulations are of great interest to law firms. Maybe that’s because lawsuits are one of the few American growth industries these days. It’s also interesting that the regulators have missed two-thirds of their deadlines. They’d never allow a company to miss a deadline; in fact, the EPA is currently fining oil refiners because it wants them to use cellulosic ethanol, which doesn’t even exist!

American businesses are remarkably adaptable. If they have information from markets, they tend to move quickly to implement money-making policies. But they cannot adjust to what they don’t know. The federal government’s regulatory policy resembles CNN’s outdated approach, rather than SCOTUSblog’s effective approach.


The government needs to get out of our lives. And until it does, it should start providing more information about what it’s up to.

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