The Basics of Regulation

shutterstock_underverse_pen and word regulationsIf you’re new to regulatory affairs, start by reading this page. It contains answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about regulation and the federal rulemaking process.

If you have additional questions you’d like us to answer on this page, please email them to David Rosen at drosen@citizen.org.

 


 

What are regulations?

Once a bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president, it becomes law and must be implemented and enforced. Regulations are the legal and procedural tools that agencies, boards, commissions and departments use to implement and enforce our laws.

Why do we need regulations?

Regulations are necessary to ensure that our laws are properly implemented and enforced. Congress lacks the resources, manpower and expertise to carry out that mission – which is why Congress delegates authority to federal agencies. Regulations bring a myriad of benefits to society, and you can read about them here.

Who issues regulations?

At the federal level, regulations are developed and issued by government agencies, boards, commissions and departments — most of which are housed within the executive branch. Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Labor, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Depending on what our laws say, sometimes an agency is required to issue a regulation, and sometimes it has the discretion to do so. Most laws passed by Congress give agencies some flexibility in deciding how best to implement our laws.

How are regulations made?

The process for developing and issuing federal regulations – known as rulemaking – is incredibly complex. Rulemaking is governed by a variety of statutes and executive orders requiring agencies to conduct exhaustive studies, perform rigorous analyses of the costs and benefits, hold review panels, solicit input from the public and from regulated industries, and collaborate with other government actors such as the Office of Management and Budget, the Small Business Administration and other relevant federal agencies before issuing a final rule. Agencies do not issue new regulations quickly or unilaterally. Instead, the process can take years or decades, even for non-controversial rules that have virtually universal support.

Why are there so many regulations?

It’s not the number of regulations that matters, but how effective they are. The vast majority of federal regulations are unremarkable and uncontroversial – designed simply to keep the wheels of government and society turning safely and efficiently. There are rules moving tax day to a Monday in years when it falls on a Sunday; there are rules setting the timetables for the raising and lowering of drawbridges; and there are rules ensuring that trees and shrubs don’t block the runways at our airports. Are there a lot of these rules? Yes. And that’s because we all benefit from having standards and procedures in place that keep our proverbial trains running safely and on time.

Why are regulations so complex?

We live in a complex world, and we all benefit from that complexity. Consider the following scenario. When an agency must decide how to regulate a toxic chemical, it faces a choice. One option is a rule that bans the chemical outright. That’s the simplest option. Alternatively, the agency can develop a more complex rule spelling out the ways in which the chemical can be used, who can use it, under what circumstances, and how it must be disposed. If regulators choose the simpler rule, it means none of us will reap the potential benefits of the chemical. With a more complex rule, we all benefit from the chemical without putting anyone’s health and safety at risk.

Despite the frequent need for regulatory complexity, most agencies strive to make their rules as simple and as clear as possible, while still protecting the public and fulfilling their core mission.

Why is industry against regulation?

Actually, many in the business community support regulation because high standards and clear rules of the road are essential components of a fair and prospering economy.

Complaints about regulation mainly emanate from big businesses, corporate trade associations and industry-funded interest groups who care more about their bottom line than the health, safety and well-being of American workers, consumers and families. Industry attacks on regulation aren’t about strengthening our system of safeguards, helping the economy or creating jobs. They’re about sabotaging long-established public protections, putting public watchdogs in government to sleep and evading accountability for their criminal misdeeds. As we’ve seen with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, behind closed doors many big businesses are fully aware of the immense damage their products and services inflict on society, but choose to bury the evidence and attack regulation to protect their profits.

On the other hand, there are some who object to regulation on ideological grounds. These extremists believe there is something morally, legally or constitutionally wrong with passing laws to protect ourselves from harm. Thankfully, most Americans disagree. The overwhelming majority of voters in both parties appreciate the need for regulation and want greater enforcement. Hostility to regulation – whatever the reason for it – is as unwise as it is unpopular.

Why should I care about regulation?

Strong and effective regulations protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. They safeguard our homes, our workplaces, our health and our economy from genuine dangers. But powerful and well-funded interests are trying to unravel those protections – and convince unsuspecting citizens there’s something wrong with protecting ourselves and each other from harm. If they succeed, we’ll all pay the price. From the Wall Street economic collapse to the recent wave of train derailments and explosions, from the countless food and product safety recalls to the environmental catastrophes that have devastated so many communities, the costs of deregulation, weak regulation and no regulation are staggering. It’s worth caring about regulation because so much is at stake.

How can I help?

Start by learning about the issues. Then contact your representatives in Washington: let them you support strong and effective regulation and oppose the anti-regulatory bills making their way through Congress. If you represent an organization that works on federal or state regulatory issues and shares our values, you can join our coalition. You also can help by making a financial contribution to any of the organizations in our leadership or membership. Members of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards have a diverse range of institutional interests and organizational priorities, but they all care deeply about regulatory protections and will appreciate your financial support. And of course, please feel free to share the resources on our website with others who may be interested in regulatory affairs.