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Opinion: When Washington Can’t Implement Its Own Laws, the System is Broken

Safety group points to eight laws delayed for years in red tape.

Republicans and Democrats in Washington often disagree about the proposals before them. But when a bill becomes law — passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President — can we agree that that law should be implemented? If not, why should our lawmakers bother to show up?

In 2007, Congress passed a law, signed by President Bush in early 2008, which required the Transportation Department to develop regulations to reduce back-up accidents, which often take the tragic form of a parent backing up a vehicle over one’s own child. More than 200 people are killed that way in the U.S. each year; about half of them are children ages 5 and below. A rearview camera and dashboard screen, at a wholesale cost of $100-$200 per vehicle, would prevent thousands of deaths and injuries each year.

Considering the small cost per vehicle and the lives that would be saved, requiring rearview cameras and screens as standard equipment makes a lot of sense. Congress thought so when it passed the law, which required the Transportation Department to develop the necessary regulations by 2011. However, as we enter 2014, that three-year window has turned into six, with still no regulations in effect.

What’s the hold up? Surprisingly, although Republicans are often viewed as the anti-regulation party, in this case it was a Republican president who signed the law, and it is the Obama White House that has been dragging its feet.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed proposed regulations and sent them to the White House for review in November 2011. That’s where they have been stalled ever since. Despite repeated calls for action, the White House has never explained the delay.

The Regulatory Rabbit Hole

Lengthy delays in implementing much-needed regulations are addressed in “Down the Regulatory Rabbit Hole,” a 40-page booklet released earlier this year by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards. The booklet lists eight examples of regulations that have been delayed for years, despite needless deaths and injuries that result with each passing year.

“For the regulatory system to work in the public interest, [regulatory] agencies … must be allowed to issue rules to implement the laws,” the booklet says. Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Why isn’t that clear to the bureaucrats in Washington?

No. 1 on the Coalition’s list of long-delayed regs is the installation of rearview cameras to prevent children and others from being backed over.

Remember, this is not about regulation vs. deregulation. The way to prevent excessive, burdensome regulation is to oppose unnecessary measures when they come up for a vote. But the rearview camera requirement is no longer being debated; it is the law of the land and has been for six years. But the executive branch has failed to follow through with the necessary policies to translate that law into action.

Almost no Americans who want to do away with regulations entirely. As the Coalition states in its booklet:

“America’s regulatory system protects us from health, safety and environmental risks. It ensures all businesses in a particular industry are playing by the same rules and following basic labor standards. It assures parents that the food, medicine and toys they buy for their children are safe.”

Sure, debate a proposed regulation all you want to. But when our elected representatives pass a law, particularly when the reason is to save the lives of our own children, then let’s develop and implement the necessary regulations without endless bureaucratic obstructionism.

In its booklet, the Coalition lists eight examples of important policies that have been voted into law but have been needlessly delayed for years. In addition to rearview cameras, the list includes:

  • Protection from silica dust to prevent respiratory damage among construction and manufacturing workers.
  • Establishment of professional standards for financial advisors to prevent them from taking advantage of investors.
  • Controls to prevent Wall Street traders from artificially pumping up energy costs through speculation, which impacts nearly every U.S. citizen.

The Coalition is not shy about calling out the president. “The Obama administration has the authority to act on six of these rules immediately. It should do so,” the Coalition says.

As the Coalition points out, the requirement is for White House reviews to be completed within 90 days. However, as in the case of rearview cameras, the White House simply ignores that deadline. More than 120 rules are currently stalled at the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Also to blame is undue influence over our regulatory system by the industries being regulated. “Many trade associations, lobbyists, and special industry interests benefit greatly from the regulatory system’s present hobbled state. They benefit from the status quo, and have ample resources to invest in thwarting new rules. As long as new rules can be tied up in procedural delays, large companies — some of whom are currently raking in historically large profits — can avoid investing in improved health and safety standards required by law.”

The Coalition concludes: “Many crucial safeguards have been subject to inexcusable delays ranging from several years to more than a decade. Extravagant claims by corporate interests and their allies in government notwithstanding, the flow from the regulatory pipeline has been slowed to a trickle.”