Self-Replicating Regulation: How to Trim Government Overlap

By Mark Warner

For far too long, Washington has added laws, mandates, and programs -- but rarely does it look back to see if those initiatives still make sense.

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I came to Washington as a former CEO and governor and thought that I could apply those experiences to the federal government and produce positive results. But it's proven to be a lot harder than I expected, especially on some very obvious problems.

As a new guy, the Senate Budget Committee offered me an opportunity to take on federal duplication and waste as the chairman of a bipartisan Task Force on Government Performance. For far too long, Washington has added laws, programs, and regulations -- layer-after-layer, year after year, rarely looking back to see if they still make sense.

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For example, we have significant duplication in educational programs. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office identified 82 teacher quality programs across 10 agencies, and GAO's 2012 report finds 209 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs across 13 agencies. If we want these important investments in education to be more effective, we must clear out this administrative clutter.

We need to be more transparent and accountable in other areas, too. The Department of Justice issues more than 11,000 grants each year, but it doesn't review the recipients across the program lines. That means they could be funding the same investment multiple times and wouldn't know it.

Clearly, we need to review the structure of our government and modernize the way it works. I'm sponsoring the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act of 2012, legislation that restores executive reorganization authority and lets the president send proposals for modernizing the government to Congress for expedited consideration. As a CEO and a governor, I had this authority -- and the president should have it, too.

The accumulation of regulations may be worse than programs, so I'm working on a proposal to require all agencies -- executive and independent -- to conduct an economic impact analysis for each of their proposed regulations costing over $100 million. This economic impact analysis would also require agencies to set measurable goals for each regulation -- goals that can be measured over time to ensure that they remain relevant and effective.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems I've seen is that we never look back at existing regulations to see if they work. And we don't know if the assumptions on costs and benefits made at the front-end actually pan-out over the long run. We need a legislative agency, such as the Congressional Budget Office, to review the economic impact analyses every five years or so to determine if the regulations are working and report this information to Congress. This independent analysis would provide helpful data for Congress and the agencies to modify and eliminate outdated regulations and laws.

And we also need a short-term mechanism to address the accumulation of regulations over time. I'd like to borrow the pay-as-you-go concept from budgeting and apply it to regulations.

For example, if an agency wants to add a new regulation, then they should reduce their existing stock of regulations. This pay-as-you-go process would build off the regulatory look-back plans that agencies recently developed to ensure that outdated and duplicative regulations are removed from the books. The UK has implemented a similar system. The Brits call it "One-in, One-out," and we've been monitoring their progress as we fine-tune our legislation. 

It's our responsibility in Congress to look back and clean out the duplication, fragmentation and waste in government. We must work across political divides to build a modern, smarter and more efficient government that addresses the challenges of the 21st century.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/self-replicating-regulation-how-to-trim-government-overlap/253898/