April 3, 2020

Clearing the Regulatory Docket

The Trump administration has done great work, but there’s still a lot more to do.

In the three-plus years since President Trump took office, his administration has taken a well-deserved blowtorch to the Federal Register. In his first few weeks he ordered a two-to-one reduction in regulations through executive action. And, to his credit, the president has actually over-delivered on his pledge, racking up an even more impressive ratio of reduction.

This removal of red tape has held the Trump administration and his Coronavirus Task Force in good stead as they deal with an unanticipated and all-consuming crisis. In a situation calling for nimble and innovative thinking, private-sector Americans have delivered everything from a five-minute test for COVID-19 to increased production of desperately needed medical supplies from the Big Three automakers. Even big-league jerseys are being repurposed as masks and gowns.

The bottleneck, however, has been found in the regulatory state: namely, the lack of good information on the number of cases and the nature of its geographical spread, as cities such as New York, Seattle, and New Orleans have become hotspots while other areas remain relatively virus-free, and as bordering states enact widely varying barriers to movement.

A close second in terms of regulatory frustration is the time and effort necessary for vital testing and the Centers for Disease Control’s role in this costly delay.

On the plus side, of course, is the Trump administration’s out-of-the-box thinking and general openness to trying unique things.

In considering the post-Wuhan world, particularly through an economic lens, perhaps we are learning a lesson in how to get more accomplished despite imposed handicaps. In the interest of accomplishing a goal not unlike putting a man on the moon or winning a two-front war, we have cleared the decks of a lot of economic deadwood as surely as we ramped up our emphasis on science during the 1960s and put a willing workforce of women in the factories as their husbands and brothers beat back the enemy in both Europe and the Pacific.

In the coming months, we should consider how to improve our health as a nation. Our healthcare system was caught flat-footed in large part because of onerous regulations that providers work hard to avoid and that don’t benefit patients. Savings here can be plowed back into improving the lot of front-line medical workers, who’ve done extraordinary work under great duress.

Meanwhile, we could continue to shrink the regulatory state. Ryan Young of the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggests a standing commission, similar to the one that handled military-base closures a couple of decades back, that looks at a portion of the behemoth each year on a rolling 10-year schedule. Another idea is decentralization. For example, last year portions of the Department of Agriculture were relocated more centrally, to Kansas City. With so many federal workers toiling from home thanks to COVID-induced stay-at-home orders, we’re testing the limits of decentralization in real time, thanks to technologies that makes social distancing somewhat more bearable.

Perhaps here we can borrow a philosophy from the Left and use it for real good rather than merely to grow the size of government. Perhaps this truly is a crisis we can’t afford to let go to waste.

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