Last week, the president wrote in the Wall Street Journal an article titled "Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System" in which he announced that he had issued an executive order to review all government regulations on a cost-benefit ratio basis. In itself, this is a good idea, although the president makes it explicit that the cost-benefit analysis must take account of -- as benefits -- intangible factors such as "equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts." Plenty of leeway there for career regulators and liberal political appointees to justify almost any oppressive regulation they may stumble over.
But what startles one is the that such a proposal could come from the same administration that has for the last two years been saddling the American economy and our personal lives with more new legislatively mandated regulations than we have ever experienced in such a short time.
Consider that the president's enacted health care and financial laws, by themselves, rigorously increase regulation over 25 percent and 30 percent of the entire economy. Health care now embraces about 17 percent of the economy, while finance is about 10 percent. So that by those two laws alone, the health and finance industries will be subjected to years of new regulatory oppression. In fact, it will take years just to promulgate and bring into enforcement those new regulations.
At a less visible level, the administration has been busy re-regulating across the board at a furious rate. (For instance, see this week's Weekly Standard article on the new 2010 regulation that has taken most phosphates out of dishwasher detergent. Without sufficient phosphates, dishwashers cannot properly clean dishes, as you may be noticing at home.) And of course, the outlawing of the cheap, effective incandescent light bulb will soon be coming into enforcement.
Now, no rational person can have any expectation that the new executive order, by itself, will actually result in significantly fewer regulations. Even a government that fervently believed in deregulation, like the Reagan administration, found it exasperatingly difficult to force the regulatory bureaucracy to even slow down, let alone reverse course. And the Obama administration, whatever orders it may be getting from the top, is filled with political and career staff that are in favor of ever more regulations.
But what does it say about the seriousness of purpose and steadiness of policy of an administration that first regulates with abandon, then proclaims the opposite policy?
Perhaps a clue can be found in last weekend's New York Times Magazine article by Peter Baker in which it was reported that:
"... President Obama gathered his economic team in the West Wing's Roosevelt Room to review themes for his State of the Union address. ... The ideas presented to him...seemed familiar and uninspired. 'You know, guys,' he said, according to someone in the room, "I've told you before, I want you to come to me with ideas that excite me.' Nothing he was hearing excited him."
Well, excitement is nice. But, other than the absence of correct, free-market policies, more than any factor, what is holding back the American economy is the uncertainty of economic, legislative and regulatory policies being driven by the current administration.
One could say of the current United States government that which Winston Churchill once said of the 1930s British government for their inconstancy, when he charged on the floor of the House of Commons: "So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."
What can the GOP and conservative voters across the country do about an administration that ranges between wrongheadedness and inconstancy? We need to be a polestar of right-headedness and constancy.
Regarding the vastly damaging economic (and deeply annoying personal) effect of excessive regulation, we need to take advantage of this momentary diversion of the administration toward at least rhetorical common sense. At the congressional level (as has been promised by new GOP committee chairmen such as Fred Upton at the key House Energy and Commerce Committee) we must identify, publicize and de-enact as many oppressive regulations as possible.
This will require the Appropriations Committee to explicitly defund the enforcement of such regulations. And yes, unless the president genuinely follows through with his asserted intentions to rein in regulations, this will mean confrontation between the Republican House and the administration. But the GOP Congress must stand firm.
And to help them, the conservative media and think tanks need to bring much more focus on such abusive regulations. The administration and liberals generally are delighted to let the continuing re-regulation of America continue under the radar.
What we need on our side for fighting regulations is something like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center (that acts as both a research center and clearinghouse that effectively monitors and publicizes liberal media excesses).
Many conservative think tanks do a good job of studying government regulation. But we desperately need big private funding to gather all that research and focus it upon the media.
With the right resources and attention, 2011 could be a banner year for the deregulation of American life.