Are we enforcing the regulations we have, or not?
© The Hill

"We don't need new laws or regulations, we just need to enforce the ones we have." That cry has been heard in debates over immigration and gun control. As concerns are raised about regulatory burden, it is worthwhile to examine the enforcement of regulations. Are we enforcing the regulations we have?

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There was an encouraging sign regarding the enforcement of regulation last week in West Virginia. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in jail for willfully violating mine safety laws, which led to the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. The judge who passed down the sentence said, "I believe the sentence promotes respect for the law. It also reflects the seriousness of the offense. And it serves to protect the public from other such crimes."

Unfortunately, violations of health and safety regulations are rarely treated this way. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its state affiliates did approximately 90,000 inspections in fiscal year 2015. There are 8 million worksites in the United States. Simple math tells you that it would take 88 years for OSHA to inspect every worksite in the country. If you know you'll be inspected once every 88 years (unless a worker dies on the job), then your behavior is undoubtedly affected. The situation is better at other agencies, but not much better. And every time Congress cuts agency budgets, the frequency of inspections goes down.

The lack of resources for regulatory enforcement also affects the debate on regulatory burden. If a new regulation is passed but there is insufficient money to enforce it, then the benefits of the regulation are in question. The new regulation will impose burdens on the vast majority of firms that have good intentions and want to do the right thing. Meanwhile, the "bad actors" will ignore the regulations because they do not fear enforcement. Proper funding of enforcement is therefore an integral part of the debates over regulation.

Despite the data on regulatory enforcement, the image persists of zealous policing by federal regulatory agencies. In part, this is fed by political candidates demonizing these agencies. Often, however, these same candidates will call for stricter enforcement of immigration laws or more "cops on the street" out of one side of their mouth while decrying the enforcement of safety regulations that save lives out of the other.

If a leader wants to see him or herself as favoring "law and order," then this means supporting the enforcement of regulations that save lives by protecting safety and health as surely as it does championing the enforcement of criminal laws. If a leader wants to decry the heavy hand of the state, then this means criticizing it both when a regulatory agency oversteps its bounds and when an immigration agency or a police department oversteps its bounds.

And all types of government agencies can overstep their bounds. Regulatory agencies sometimes impose fines for paperwork violations that have hurt no workers or caused no risks to the public. Immigration officers break up families who came to this country for a better life. And we've seen all too often over the past two years what happens when police officers overreact and over-enforce their authority.

But in many of these cases, the vast majority of government enforcers are people of good will who take their jobs seriously. The ones in law enforcement get plenty of well-deserved shout-outs from politicians, the public and the media. Those who charged with enforcement of regulations designed to protect safety and health deserve the same. And they deserve the resources they need to do their jobs.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.