Only a Trickle of New Rules, Not a Wave

water dripping

The business community and its allies on Capitol Hill have warned for over a year that a "tsunami" of new regulations will be flowing out of the Obama administration, undermining the anemic growth of the economy. To prevent this imagined emergency, they continue to propose draconian "reforms" of the regulatory system – changes that would further delay and obstruct the work of federal agencies attempting to implement the laws they were established to enforce.

Last year, staff at the Center for Effective Government examined these claims. We released an article on July 10 and a more in-depth report on Sept. 27 comparing the rules developed by the Obama administration in its first three years with those developed by the Clinton and Bush administrations during a similar time frame.

Examining trends in federal rulemaking over more than two decades, using data from, we found that the pace at which agencies have issued rules has remained fairly steady over the past three administrations. However, there was a noticeable increase in the number of rules with a statutory deadline imposed by Congress when the law was written, raising questions about the veracity of congressional complaints about agencies overstepping their authority. Judicial deadlines also drove some of the increase in rules.

Staff have now updated this analysis to compare the rules finalized in the first 52 months of each president's tenure (to May 19, 2013). Conservatives feared that the Obama White House was waiting to unleash a flood of rules until after the 2012 election was over, but we see no evidence of this.

Published Final Rules 1992-2013
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The preceding chart shows the trend in final rules reviewed by OIRA over roughly two decades. Rules published in 2012 represented a recent record low when compared to both the Bush and Clinton administrations. Moreover, the number of economically significant final rules has remained relatively constant.

Rules Reviewed by Administration
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The chart above shows the number of final rules reviewed and published by OIRA in the first 52 months of the three most recent administrations. Final rules published are those that make it through one last review at OIRA and go in to effect. Rules reviewed but not published are put on hold or withdrawn for any number of reasons, including OIRA objections or reconsideration by an agency. Overall, it's clear that agencies are not submitting significantly more rules to OIRA for review under the Obama administration.

Economically Significant Rules Reviewed by Administration
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While there has been a notable increase in the number of "economically significant rules" published under the Obama administration, a 20 percent increase in rulemaking after new health care and financial system legislation was enacted seems reasonable. Economically significant rules, as defined by Executive Order 12866, are those that will have an annual economic impact of at least $100 million or will have a material adverse effect on "the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local or tribal governments or communities."

During President Obama's first 52 months in office, agencies issued more economically significant rules than earlier administrations did. Fifty-five of the 58 rules developed under the current administration implemented the Affordable Care Act, and three implemented the Dodd-Frank Act (financial reform legislation). When these rules are removed from the analysis, the Obama administration has issued almost exactly the same number of economically significant rules as the Bush administration. These rules, required to implement two laws passed by Congress, represent the entire increase in rules; they will guarantee health care and tighten regulations on the industry that led to the most recent economic downturn.

Of course, all of this emphasis on the number of rules or the total pages in the Federal Register ignores the benefits of standards and safeguards. While rules may impose costs on affected businesses, the benefits of public protections typically far outweigh their costs. Under the health care and financial reform rules, for example, these benefits include increased investor protection, a more stable financial structure, less risk-taking among banks, more transparency in consumer charges by banks, and more access to affordable health care for most Americans.

The current anti-regulatory rhetoric in Congress and elsewhere simply does not reflect the facts.

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