RegData 2.0 Quantifies Federal Regulations’ Impact on Economy

RegData 2.0 Quantifies Federal Regulations’ Impact on Economy
September 2, 2014

Federal regulations have undeniably proliferated since the 1970s, which witnessed the creation of several well-known regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Energy (DOE). 

In fact, the total number of pages published in the annual Code of Federal Regulations—the set of books in which all federal regulations in effect in each year are published—has increased from 54,843 in 1970 to 175,496 in 2013. 

Government, the Great Obstructer

Is it possible to really understand how this accumulation of regulation affects our economy?  For example, do regulations negatively affect employment levels?  Are workplace safety regulations actually leading to workplace safety?  Can we explain why this accumulative trend exists in the first place? 

A new publicly searchable database, RegData 2.0, was created to help us answer these types of questions and more.

RegData 2.0, which I created with George Mason University professor Omar Al-Ubaydli, is a database containing statistics about federal regulation.  These statistics include simple, broad measures of regulation — such as word counts — as well as more nuanced and precise measures — such as restriction counts.  Restrictions — words like “shall,” “must,” and “may not”  represent binding legal obligations to act, or prohibitions against actions.

The number of restrictions in federal regulation has grown from about 812,584 in 1997 to 1,040,940 in 2012, surpassing the one-million mark in 2010. 

One unique feature of RegData 2.0 is that it offers a measure of how many restrictions are created by regulators. In 2012, for example, the top 10 regulators — those agencies that had printed the most restrictions in 2012’s regulatory code — accounted for about 31 percent of all restrictions, with EPA’s Air Programs leading the way.

Economic Shackles

RegData also measures which sectors of the economy are targeted by regulation.  To do this, we measure the number of times key words related to specific economic sectors are found in regulatory text. 

This allows us to create an industry-specific index of how much regulation targeting different sectors of the economy have grown over time.  For example, the manufacturing sector has seen regulation grow by 51 percent since 1997.

With RegData, users can easily create graphs and tables that paint of picture of the regulatory climate in the US since 1997.  With hundreds of regulator-specific and thousands of industry-specific options to choose from, RegData is an effective tool to help inform many types of policy and economic debates, for activists and policymakers alike.

Patrick A. McLaughlin, Ph.D., (pmclaughlin@mercatus.gmu.edu) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.