How OMB's 'Unified Agenda' falls short
© Getty Images

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget recently published its fall 2015 "Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions." The agenda's goal is to inform the general public and to increase transparency and accountability in the regulatory process. Yet, the way it is currently implemented, the "Unified Agenda" fails its goal.


The "Unified Agenda", published twice per year, is effectively a snapshot of the regulatory activity that the federal government expects to accomplish within the coming year. It provides businesses and the general public one place where they can see all the regulations coming down the pipeline that might affect their livelihood. It allows them to anticipate regulations that they may have to comply with in the near future, or prepare to provide feedback on regulations that are still in the development stage.

Despite its worthy goal, the "Unified Agenda" is often inaccurate and difficult to use. Studies found that a quarter of proposed regulations did not appear in the "Unified Agenda." The public was not given an advance notice that these regulations were coming. Conversely, over 40 percent of regulations that appeared in the "Unified Agenda" did not get published within following 16 months. Thus, many regulatory actions that agencies claimed were imminent took considerably more than a year to complete. The agenda's inaccuracy decreases its usefulness as a communication tool and erodes public trust in the agenda.

Beyond inaccuracy, the "Unified Agenda" is poorly organized. It sorts regulations by agency but provides no information on what industries might be affected by the regulations. Since businesses have to comply with regulations issued by multiple agencies, they currently have to sift through the entire list in order to see which regulations apply to them. An industry-focused list would make the "Unified Agenda" much more useful.

This matters because regulations come at a considerable cost. Estimates of regulatory burdens range from $100 billion to over $1 trillion. These regulations accumulate over time. By 2012, regulations imposed over 1 million restrictions on U.S. businesses. Each restriction signifies actions that businesses cannot take or a standard they must comply with. Over time, accumulating regulatory burdens reduce productivity and stunt economic growth.

But the costs of regulation are not only monetary. Regulations can delay life-saving innovations. For example, the Food and Drug Administration took years to approve MelaFind, a machine that helped dermatologists identify cancerous moles. Since early detection is crucial in treating skin cancer, the delay in the approval process led to thousands of deaths that could have been prevented. In addition, regulations can lead to unintended consequences. For example, mandatory bike helmet laws may be causing more harm than good. While they do not noticeably reduce injuries, the laws make bicycling seem inconvenient and unsafe, thus reducing the number of bikers.

This is why public participation and oversight of the regulatory process is so important. The regulatory process allows the public to comment on proposed regulations. During the commenting process, businesses and consumer groups can raise their concerns about proposed regulations directly with the agencies. They can also alert agencies to the relevant information that regulators may have missed. Yet, if the affected parties are not given an accurate advance notice of an upcoming regulation, it will be difficult for them to provide meaningful feedback.

To ensure effective and efficient regulations, the "Unified Agenda" must serve as a meaningful communication tool between the federal regulatory agencies and people affected by these regulations. It should not become just another bureaucratic exercise in ticking off a checkbox.

Abdukadirov is a research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.