Written by Diane Katz and James L. Gattuso
During 2012, virtually every aspect of American life, from caloric intake to dishwasher efficiency, was subjected to government meddling.
Most of these rules increase the cost of living, others hinder job creation, and many erode freedom. Not all regulations are unwarranted, of course, but increasingly, the rules imposed by the government have less to do with health and safety and more to do with whether government or individuals get to make basic pocketbook and lifestyle decisions that affect them. And it is not just the regulators who are to blame. Congress writes laws that give unelected bureaucrats the broad powers they wield.
In a great many cases, the agencies do not even consider costs when crafting new regulations. For example, the Government Accountability Office, in a report released last week, found that the agencies implementing the Dodd–Frank financial regulation law did not meet the government’s own standards for regulatory analyses. Nor did they evaluate alternatives to regulation.
Which are the worst? There is no objective standard to measure such things, but here is Heritage’s take on 2012’s bottom 10:
In July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its proposal for a more “consumer friendly” mortgage process, with a stated goal of simplifying home loans. The rules run an astonishing 1,099 pages. In August, the bureau proposed more than 560 pages of rules for mortgage servicing, which includes the collection of mortgage payments, maintenance of escrow accounts, and loan modifications and foreclosures. Many of the provisions would micromanage the timing, (expanded) content, and format of various disclosures. All of this, of course, will—simply—reduce consumer mortgage lending options and increase costs.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on December 13 issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to mandate installation of electronic data recorders, popularly known as “black boxes,” in most light vehicles starting in 2014. The stated goal is to collect more information about car accidents. But manufacturers, without a government mandate, already put recorders in many models. A government mandate understandably spooks privacy advocates, who warn of possible abuse of the information on drivers collected by federal bureaucrats.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grabs the number 8 spot with its proposed list of “essential health benefits,” published on November 26. Under Obamacare, insurers in the individual and small group markets will be forced to cover services that the government deems to be essential. The HHS list of very broad benefits has created enormous uncertainty about the extent of essential treatment. Included in the list are mental health coverage, “wellness” services, “habilitative” services, chronic disease management, and pediatric oral and vision care. The net result will be higher health insurance costs, which will increase the burden on consumers, employers, and taxpayers.
In April, the National Labor Relations Board issued new rules that shorten the time allowed for union-organizing elections to between 10 and 21 days. The rule delays most administrative issues—such as challenges to the definition of the appropriate bargaining unit—until after the election. This leaves little time for employees to make a fully informed choice on unionizing, threatening to leave workers and management alike under unwanted union regimes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in January published stringent nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs. More than 98,000 elementary and secondary schools are affected—at a cost exceeding $3.4 billion over the next four years. The dietary rules have drawn protests from students, including the YouTube video “We Are Hungry” from a Kansas high school and a lunch boycott by high school students in Wisconsin.
Regulators admit that these Department of Energy rules will do little to improve the environment. Rather, proponents claim they will save consumers money. But they will also increase the price of dishwashers, and only about one in six consumers will keep his or her dishwasher long enough to recoup the cost.Whatever the numbers, this is a call that consumers—rather than Washington—should be making.
Not all regulations come from Washington. On September 13, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Board of Health banned the sale of soda and other sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces. New Yorkers are apparently still allowed refills, at least for now. No word on how many New York City cops will be moved from crime prevention to monitor the city’s soda fountains.
In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in tandem with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), finalized new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks for model years 2017–2025. The rules require a whopping average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Sticker prices will jump by hundreds of dollars. Regulators argue that the fuel savings will make up these costs. Whether consumers want to make such a trade-off does not matter. The government has decided for them.
The EPA in February finalized strict new emissions standards for coal- and oil-fired electric utilities. The benefits are highly questionable, with the vast majority being unrelated to the emissions targeted by the regulation. The costs, however, are certain: an estimated $9.6 billion annually. The regulations will produce a significant loss of electricity generating capacity, which would undermine energy reliability and raise energy costs across the entire economy.
The HHS on February 15 finalized its mandate that all health insurance plans include coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization procedures, and contraceptives. The mandate allows no exceptions for church-affiliated schools, hospitals, and charities whose religious principles conflict with the mandate. To date, 42 cases with over 110 plaintiffs are challenging this restriction on religious liberty as a violation of the First Amendment.
As busy as regulators were in 2012, do not look for them to slow down in the new year. Already in the pipeline are dozens of new rules covering health care, finance, global warming, and more. It is anybody’s guess who will win next year’s prize. The only safe bet is that consumers will lose.
—Diane Katz is Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy and James L. Gattuso is Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.