Media

Soundbite: Agency Provocateur

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Federal regulators wield enormous power over American life and commerce, but anyone seeking to understand the reams of rules these agencies produce each year is soon lost in a labyrinth of inscrutable acronyms, technical jargon, and overlapping spheres of authority. Veteran reporter Cindy Skrzycki is a modern day Virgil who since 1993 has guided readers through the dark underworld of Washington's regulatory process in her weekly Washington Post column "The Regulators." Her new book, The Regulators: Anonymous Power Brokers in American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield), collects some of her most revealing columns from years past, updated with supplemental material to reflect new developments. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez interviewed Skrzycki in September.

Q: Most regulation now comes via executive agencies rather than the legislative process. When did that start, and why?

A: The regulatory state began growing rapidly in the 1960s with the consumer and environmental movements. It has become a tool for various administrations, be they Republican or Democrat, to get things done. It's a form of executive branch fiat, though the proposals are subject to public scrutiny and comment. As I say in the book, we are a nation of rules as much as laws.

Q: Why do these rules get so much less media attention than legislative acts or court rulings? And why should folks who aren't CEOs or labor leaders be paying attention?

A:The work of regulators is amazingly complex; it can be difficult to understand without an advanced degree. Many of the agencies do not make it a point to propose or issue rules in plain English, though some have made great strides since the Clinton administration in this area. And frankly, regulation just isn't considered as sexy as a presidential horse race or a groundbreaking decision by the Supreme Court.

The public needs to pay attention to regulation because it affects every facet of life—from the size of holes in Swiss cheese to how a nutritional supplement is labeled—and every administration has a lot of latitude in shaping the regulatory state. It has become easier to get involved in regulatory goings-on with the inception of agency Web sites and a government-wide one at www.regulations.gov.

Q: Are there any regulations that stand out as brazenly stupid?

A: The brazenness of various rules is in the eye of the beholder…and the party at the receiving end. I try not to judge. But I do find it fascinating how much attention rule makers pay to minutiae such as the grading of prunes and how certain anatomical parts of pigs should be treated at slaughterhouses so they can't be used for dog treats. Never a dull moment.