August 22, 2012

How many regulations do you encounter before breakfast?

By Brian T. Hodges Senior Attorney

More than you might think, according to Regulation: A Primer, a new paper by Mercatus Center researcher Jerry Brito and Susan E. Dudley of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center:

You might be surprised to learn just how many regulations you encounter in an average day.

Perhaps your day starts when you clock radio goes off in the morning.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates not only the airwaves used by your favorite radio station, but also the programming content.  Electricity regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and by state regulatory agencies powers your radio.  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) regulates the type of light bulb you can use in your lamp.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the label on your mattress.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the content of your toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and other grooming products.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of the water coming out of your showerhead.  On your way out of the bathroom, you may have to flush your low-flow toilet twice, a result of mandates imposed by the DOE’s appliance efficiency rules.

As you prepare your breakfast, you might check your cereal’s FDA-regulated label for nutritional information.  The FDA also regulates what companies may say about the health benefits of foods and what adjectives they may use to describe those health benefits.  The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have a hand in regulating your coffee and sugar.  Also joining you for your cup of java is the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the hedging of investments in coffee beans, sugar, and other commodities.

The EPA, FDA, and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulate the fruit you serve for breakfast.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service also plays a role in your breakfast.  It sets grade standards and purchases fruits and vegetables “to correct supply and demand imbalances,” which keeps prices higher than they otherwise would be.  The USDA even regulates the size of the holes in the Swiss cheese you grate into your omelet.

As you head off to school and work, you might put your children in the back seat because the passenger air bags required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have killed children and small adults riding in the front.  Your car is also subject to the NHTSA’s and EPA’s fuel economy standard and the EPA’s emission standards.  If you do not have a carpool, you may have to take a roundabout way to your office because the most direct route is reserved for “high occupancy vehicles” during the morning rush hour.  The EPA’s air quality state implementation plans, or SIPs, mandate that states set aside roads for carpools or forfeit federal highway funds.  If your day involves air travel, you will be subjected to passenger screening and other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requirements at the airport.

At work, regulations issued by the Department of Labor (DOL) may keep your workplace safer, but they may also limit the arrangement you can agree upon with your employer.  Mandated employee benefits standards may prevent employees from negotiating the benefit packages that best suit their individual needs and preferences, so you may be unwittingly forced to accept lower wages in exchange for benefits you do not want.  Regulations guarantee you a minimum wage for your work, but they discourage employers from hiring younger or less-experienced workers.  The health care plans you can choose from and their terms are regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services or your state government, while the retirement savings plan options available to you are governed by DOL and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules.

When you stop by the store on your way home from work, regulations covering product safety, food, pharmaceuticals, and the environment affect the character, availability, and price of the products you buy.  These rules may keep some unsafe products off the market, but they also raise prices and may prevent valuable and potentially life-saving new products from becoming available to Americans.

Back at home in the evening, you might unwind in front of the television with a glass of wine.  The local news program you watch exists in part to comply with public interest obligations the FCC imposes as a condition of licensing stations.  There are health benefits to moderate alcohol consumption, but you won’t find that information on the label because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau prohibits winemakers from telling you so.  Later, you might help your children study for a standardized test that—under Department of Education regulations—will affect local school funding.

Regulation touches our everyday lives in thousands of ways that we may never imagine.  These rules have both benefits and costs, but most people are unaware of their reach and influence.

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