Cutting federal red tape

Whether it was overshadowed by the East Coast earthquake or merely a victim of public indifference, President Barack Obama's latest effort to reduce regulatory red tape drew all the excitement of Brussels sprouts for dinner. Only the true policy wonks may have found it satisfying, while conservative Republicans thumbed their collective noses and even the business community reacted with a yawn.

If the reforms announced Tuesday were intended to establish Mr. Obama's bona fides as some kind of sop to business as part of his reelection campaign, then they clearly fell short. But if they were meant to be a reasonable effort to reassess dated and sometimes inconsistent rules for the sake of small employers — as the seven-month-old Office of Management and Budget-directed campaign has consistently been portrayed — then they deserve a better review.

After all, as anyone who has ever tried to start up or manage a business can tell you, the federal government's regulatory morass can be a daunting maze for the average person to navigate. As the Obama administration's regulatory czar Cass Sunstein noted this week in The Wall Street Journal, streamlining the rules and deleting unnecessary red tape could save those businesses tens of billions of dollars.

What kind of reforms are we talking about? Some 26 federal agencies have produced more than 500 of them. They vary from a new Small Business Administration policy of using a single electronic application to reduce paperwork to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency move to possibly eliminate unnecessary vapor recovery systems from gas pumps.

You can bet the changes won't appease the right-wing pontificators who hyperventilate over every page of the Federal Register almost daily on conservative media outlets and produce studies of questionable scientific merit claiming regulations are costing the economy trillions. But, as in most matters of complexity, the devil is most assuredly in the details.

If history proves anything, it's that Washington is guilty of both too much and too little oversight. The nation's mortgage crisis and accompanying financial woes didn't take place because of excessive regulations on Wall Street. Nor was overly zealous rulemaking the reason homeowners living near certain gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania were able to set their tap water on fire.

Closer to home, you can bet that Exxon would have appreciated stricter rules and enforcement that might have detected its underground gasoline leak in Jacksonville, saved the surrounding Baltimore County neighborhood from ground water contamination and prevented a multimillion-dollar judgment against the company earlier this year.

Clean water and air, safe food, fair businesses practices and many other desirable circumstances in an increasingly complex society require government-imposed rules, and sometimes fairly complicated ones at that. Even a free market requires a rulebook and a referee of some sort.

That is not to suggest that many complaints from the private sector aren't legitimate. Excessive red tape has likely been a bane of civilization from the beginning. It took a 21st century industrialized society to raise it to an art form.

However, in an age of smart phones and laptops, it simply makes no sense to continue to rely on paperwork that must be filed in triplicate. And there's certainly no excuse for the maddening inconsistencies and the overlapping functions of sister agencies. That's not just a problem for Washington; it's too often the case on the state and local levels, too.

But please spare us the claims that sweeping reform would cure the nation's economic maladies. Deregulation can be helpful, but it can also prove more costly to the economy in the long run, as pollution pushes down real estate values or unsafe drugs raise health care costs — to give just two examples.

Those who carp against regulations ought to put up specifics or shut up. One person's regulatory burden is too often another's protection to accept some black-and-white pronouncement that everything associated with government is bad, and all that comes from the private sector is good. The reality is, thankfully, more complicated, and Mr. Obama's approach at least appears to recognize the nuance involved.

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