Measuring One Part of the Bush-Obama Regulatory Onslaught

Have you ever tried to run in waist-high water? It’s not easy, but it’s a useful exercise if you want to experience what it’s like to comply with government rules, regulation, paperwork, and red tape. Especially if you want to understand why it’s getting harder for American companies to compete against firms from other nations.

The Wall Street Journal reports on some new numbers released by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The effort needed to comply with federal bureaucracy now has a number. According to new government estimates released this week, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours filling out government forms in fiscal 2010. …In all, the paperwork burden has increased by around 19% over the past decade, up from 7.4 billion hours in fiscal 2000, the White House Office of Management and Budget said.

The article explains that there is plenty of blame to go around, showing that politicians of both parties seem perfectly happy to bury Americans under a mountain of red tape.

Between 2002 and 2005, federal agencies reported significant increases in paperwork demands. Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for almost all that period. In 2005, laws including the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription-drug overhaul, created what is now estimated to be an extra 250 million paperwork hours. At the same time, the biggest single-year jump in the past decade came in 2010, when individuals and businesses spent an extra 352 million hours responding to paperwork requests from agencies prompted by new statutory requirements.

Some of the example will help you understand why the economy is having trouble creating jobs.

Last year, employers needed almost 70 million additional hours to claim a new credit for hiring more workers, and restaurants spent 14.5 million hours to display calorie counts for their menus, according to figures submitted to OMB by the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services. In fact, the Treasury was the source of most of the paperwork burden in 2010, hitting 6.4 billion hours, or 73%. …The winner of the largest year-on-year increase was the Securities and Exchange Commission, which decided it actually took twice as long to complete its forms than it previously thought, upping its estimates to 361 million hours from 168 million. A spokesman declined to comment.

The real cost of all this regulation is measured in lost economic output, jobs not created, and mandated inefficiency. According to the Small Business Administration, that amounts to a whopping $1.75 trillion per year.

But if you just want to measure the cost of the man-hours required, the Administration has an estimate.

The OMB said it hadn’t attempted to put a financial cost on the paperwork requests, but noted in its report that “it is clear that the monetary equivalent would be very high. For example, if each hour is valued at $20, the monetary equivalent would be $176 billion.”

Considering much of the compliance burden falls on the business community, the $20 per-hour figure is obviously way too low.

But whatever the actual total, remember that the man-hours are just one small slice of the burden.

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