Don’t Cut Red Tape, Shut Down the Factory

In the Wall Street Journal today, Cass Sunstein—the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and erstwhile Harvard Law School professor—wants us to know what he and the Obama Administration are up to. In an op-ed that seems more like an advertisement (“the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, accept no substitute!”), Sunstein describes the “unprecedented government-wide review of regulations already on the books so that we can improve or remove those that are out-of-date, unnecessary, excessively burdensome or in conflict with other rules.”

Sunstein discusses OSHA eliminating “1.9 million annual hours of redundant reporting burdens on employers,” the Department of Health and Human Services “reconsidering burdensome regulatory requirements, including paperwork burdens, now placed on hospitals and doctors to ask whether those requirements actually benefit patients,” and the Department of the Interior “reviewing cumbersome, outdated regulations under the Endangered Species Act to clarify and expedite procedures for approval of conservation agreements.”

Also on the chopping block are “regulations that require the use of outdated technologies” and a regulation that defines milk as “oil” and subjects it “to costly rules designed to prevent oil spills.” Lost in the discussion are the obvious questions: how did these admittedly useless and burdensome regulations ever get adopted in the first place? What sort of backward organization would require 1.9 million hours of redundant reporting? Has anyone in the EPA ever cleaned up spilled milk before? What’s to keep all this from happening again?

“Cutting government waste” is the mantra for those politicians who regard certain government programs as sacred cows. President Obama hopes to pay for a sizeable part of his health care overhaul by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” in Medicare. Speaking at Cato yesterday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said he wouldn’t cut defense spending, but he would try to make defense “more efficient.”

These sacred cows, however, have a severe eating disorder. The binge and purge cycle that politicians occasionally put them through does nothing to eliminate the underlying disease. Governmental agencies are inherently inefficient and wasteful because they have few reasons not to be. Searching out government waste is a chimerical mission that should raise fundamental questions about the nature of government, not about whether milk is oil.