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Federal regulations often take years to complete. In order to stay informed on a rule of interest to you, it is important to be able to track a rule as it moves through the regulatory pipeline. This will also help you know the proper times to take advantage of public participation mechanisms in the rulemaking process.

Prerule Stage
Rules often publicly appear for the first time in the Unified Agenda. The Unified Agenda is a collective list of all federal agencies' planned and recently completed regulatory actions. It is published semiannually, usually in April and October. Unified Agenda entries usually include, among other things: the title of the rule, an abstract, the submitting agency, the date of submission, the stage of the rule (proposed or final), and the legal authority (when applicable). Current and past Unified Agendas are available electronically at RegInfo.gov. (For tips on how to read the Unified Agenda, click here.)

The Unified Agenda often publishes rules in the "prerule" stage. Usually, these rules have not previously appeared in the Federal Register. Therefore, inclusion in the Unified Agenda is the first public notification of rulemakings.

When the Unified Agenda lists a rule in the prerule stage, the rule will be assigned a regulation identifier number (RIN). The RIN is the easiest way to search for more information on agency websites or in the Federal Register. However, it is possible the agency will make no further information on the rule available until the agency publishes a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register. (For tips on how to read the Federal Register, click here.)

The prerule stage also marks the opening of a rulemaking record. However, the amount of information in the record made publicly available varies from agency to agency. The rulemaking record may be opened to the public in the prerule or proposed rule stage.

The ease of public access to an agency's rulemaking record varies as well. Although federal law requires agencies to maintain an online docket of materials related to a rulemaking, agencies have been inconsistent in their compliance. Some agency dockets include a limited number of documents and are difficult to navigate while others are more exhaustive. Exemplary agencies even offer the public an opportunity to sign up for e-mail alerts related to a rulemaking.

Proposed Rule Stage
Before agencies can publish NPRMs, they submit significant rules to the White House for review under Executive Order 12866. (For more information on White House review, click here.) This provides the next opportunity for the public to view a proposed regulatory action.

In addition to housing the Unified Agenda, RegInfo.gov provides information on the review of proposed rules. When an agency submits a rule for review, the rule is posted on RegInfo.gov. After the White House completes the process, it notes the outcome of its review.

Users can search RegInfo.gov only by agency. RegInfo.gov also provides a list of regulatory reviews completed in the last 30 days and historical reports of regulatory reviews.

Comments on Proposed Rules
After the White House completes its review process, and if it allows the agency to continue with the rulemaking, the agency will publish an NPRM in the Federal Register. The NPRM should contain all the information essential for the public to understand the potential impact of the proposed rule. The NPRM usually announces the beginning and end of a notice-and-comment period for the rule. (For more on commenting on a rule, click here.)

When the comment period for a proposed rule begins, the rule will be posted on Regulations.gov. Regulations.gov is the federal portal for submitting public comments on rulemakings. The website allows you to view the proposed rule and, at times, supporting documentation the agencies or the White House used to develop the rule. Regulations.gov will also (usually) post your comment and the comments of others for each rule.

Regulations.gov is an ongoing project of the federal government. Most, but not all, federal agencies include their dockets on Regulations.gov.

Final Rule Stage
When the comment period ends, the process for tracking a regulation once again becomes murky. Although the rule, comments, and other information will remain on Regulations.gov, new information may not become available until publication of the final rule. The rulemaking record can continue to be a source for the public to find new information.

The Federal Register is another way of finding new information on a rule after the comment period closes. Agencies may publish relevant information as it comes up. Unfortunately, sorting through the many pages of the Federal Register is no small task. The Federal Register is accessible online and contains a search function, though it is difficult to use.

Another way of using the Federal Register is checking new Unified Agendas. Because the Unified Agenda is published twice every year, rules frequently appear in more than one Agenda. Tracking a rule in the Unified Agenda will likely tell you no more than if the rule has moved from the proposed rule stage to the final rule stage.

However, the fall publication of the Unified Agenda also includes the Regulatory Plan. The Regulatory Plan is more focused than the Unified Agenda and includes only agencies' most important regulatory actions. If the rule you are tracking appears in the Regulatory Plan, the listing will include a timetable with important past dates and estimates of future developments.

The final work on a regulation is usually the publication of the final rule in the Federal Register. This notifies the public the agency has completed its regulatory action. The notice of a final rulemaking includes the final text of the rule and its anticipated effective date.

 

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