Obama's historic expansion of the regulatory state

There are many different metrics to measure the expansion of regulatory power, which has frankly grown to the point where judging its full extent and cost is harder than calculating the duration of the Big Bang.  You might say some of the same quantum uncertainty principles are involved.  One law has a way of turning into a thousand rules, which breed into five thousand more micro-regulations… and that’s before the bureaucracy realizes that yesterday’s regulations need some quick fixes.  It’s a lot easier to camp out at the South Pole and look for gravity waves in the background radiation of the universe.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute suggests that the traditional metric of counting pages in the Federal Register (currently growing at the rate of 70,000 fresh pages per year!) is not precise enough, because the Federal Register “contains lots of material besides final rules.”  With that in mind, the Institute looked at the far breezier Code of Federal Regulations, a bit of light beach reading whose accumulated volumes, for all the years of its existence, weigh in at a mere 175,496 pages.  It’s like the Harry Potter books: the later volumes get longer.

How much longer?  CEI crunches the numbers:

Now, new data from the National Archives shows that the CFR stands at 175,496 at year-end 2013, including the 1,170-page index. (See the breakout below.)

That???s a 146 percent increase since 1975. The number of CFR volumes stands at 235 (as of 2012; the 2013 count remains unavailable for the time being), compared with 133 in 1975.

More recently, at the end of President George W. Bush???s second term (2008), there were 157,974 pages in the CFR.

That means President Obama has added 17,522 pages of regulations in his five years in office; one president growing the regulatory state 11 percent increase in five years.

In his five years in Office, President Obama has averaged 3,504 CFR pages annually.

Meanwhile, Bush???s final four years averaged 2,584 pages; his total eight-year tenure averaged 2,490 pages annually.

(Emphasis in the original.)  We can leave the Bush years firmly on the hook while noting that Obama took an already appalling pace of growth and kicked it into hyperdrive – and even at that, CEI reminds us that a sizable amount of regulatory bloat was delayed to get Obama through the 2012 election with ludicrous claims about how he’s actually some sort of small-government crusader.

Every attempt to measure the contraction of liberty is going to be subjective, of course.  The cost of regulations must be factored in as well; a single rule that inflicts a billion dollars in compliance costs is far worse than ten rules that cost a million dollars apiece.  The way regulations interact with one another makes it very difficult to compute the precise cost of compliance.  And we should always bear in mind that some exercises of regulatory power are worth the cost, while others are not.

But it’s very difficult to make the case that our freedom has not contracted sharply, over the course of the past two decades, and the pace of contraction has accelerated sharply in the Obama years.  Especially since so many rules are changed by imperial fiat now, without any sort of due process at all, entirely because the President is worried about how his party will fare in the next election.  Uncertainty is expensive.