Repealing Regulations, Sort of

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Last
month, the Senate passed S.J. Res. 17, a resolution to rescind new
broadcast media ownership rules announced by the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) in June. The rules would allow for the "cross-ownership"
of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations within the
same market by a single firm, and would allow television networks
to own local stations reaching up to 45 percent of the national
audience, instead of the current 35 percent limit. The rules have
been stayed for judicial review by a Philadelphia federal appellate
court. Although the joint resolution passed 55-40 in the Senate,
Republican leaders in the House of Representative have promised
to kill it, and the White House has threatened to veto any such
measure.

Even
more interesting than the debate on the floor of the Senate over
the media ownership rule, however, is the nature of the joint resolution
itself. Under the Congressional Review Act, a part of the Small
Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996, federal agencies
must notify the leadership and parliamentarians of both the House
and the Senate, as well as the General Accounting Office, of all
new rules. Legislators then have 60 days to object to a rule. If
a legislator does protest a rule, he may file a "joint resolution
of disapproval" (JRD), which is then referred to the appropriate
committee and treated like a bill. In the Senate, a petition signed
by 30 members places the resolution directly on the legislative
calendar. Significantly, no amendments or filibusters are allowed
during Senate debate on the JRD. Should the JRD pass both chambers
and be signed by the president, it is as if the rule in question
never existed, and agencies are barred from introducing significantly
similar rules in the future.

The
JRD presents Congress with a great tool for reigning in overambitious
federal agencies. In the seven years since Congressional Review
Act went into effect, however, it has very rarely been used, and
has only once resulted in a successful disapproval. The lone success
was in overturning a controversial Clinton-era Occupational Health
and Safety Administration (OSHA) "rule" (actually 608
pages of regulations) regarding the forced implementation of ergonomics
programs in businesses and the nationalization of workers' compensation
for "ergonomic injuries." The rule was announced during
the last days of the Clinton Administration and rescinded on March
20, 2001. This all leads me to wonder: Why hasn't the JRD been utilized
more often, particularly during the years Republicans, who periodically
pay lip service to limited government, have controlled Congress?

Congress
should improve the JRD process by expanding its scope to include
all federal rules and regulations on record, not just those
abuses committed within the past 60 days. It should, furthermore,
engage in a comprehensive review of all federal agency regulations
and repeat this practice frequently. An even better solution would
be for Congress to permit only regulations that have earned the
approval of its elected members, rather than to acquiesce to the
will of unelected bureaucrats. By reclaiming its rightful authority
and responsibility, legislators would be spared the trouble of having
to clean up messes caused by regulations that should not have been
issued in the first place, and the accompanying increase in accountability
would serve as a small check on the unbridled growth of government.

Even
if S.J. Res. 17 does somehow pass, it will only represent a partial
victory for foes of government regulation, as some of the main provisions
of the rule in question, such as the caps on the size and scope
of television networks, do not altogether repeal FCC regulations,
but merely modify and relax existing regulations. The nation is
clearly in desperate need of regulatory relief. The administrative
costs of federal regulations will total approximately $30 billion
this year, up 59 percent just since 2000! A quick look at the regulatory
situation in California — surveys of business executives confirm
that the state's business climate has gone from best in the nation
to worst in just the past few years — will reveal how regulation
is driving companies (and thus jobs) from the state and strangling
the economy. What is needed is total repeal of interventionist regulations,
not regulatory tinkering (which usually only adds to the problem).

Sadly,
the era of big government is not over, as government budgets — and
deficits — continue to grow. Individuals and businesses have been
drowning in red tape for years. As David Hume observed in 1742,
"It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.
Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom
that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself
in a thousand shapes in order to be received." Government continues
to encroach upon our liberties by degrees, and unchecked regulation
is a large part of this usurpation. It is time for Congress to demonstrate
a modicum of vigilance for our precious freedoms and relieve the
regulatory burden.

October
16, 2003

Adam
B. Summers [send him mail]
is a freelance writer and Visiting Policy Analyst at the Reason
Foundation. He holds a Master’s degree in economics from George
Mason University.


        
        

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