The $4,000 Trash Can
Since January 1st, the federal government has imposed $56.6 billion in compliance costs.
According to conventional progressive wisdom, regulation is the means by which a compassionate government protects the weak and innocent from the strong and malevolent.
Try telling that to Brad Jones.
Jones is one of the owners of Buckingham Slate, a Virginia business a little over an hour's drive west of Richmond. The company is distinguished by the quality of the highly valued Arvonia slate it produces. And by the fact that its roots trace back almost to the Civil War. And by the fact that federal regulators smacked it with a $4,000 fine.
Over a trash can.
The offending can—or "waste receptacle," in the words of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's official citation—was "not covered." What's more, "the receptacle was full." It "could be smelled." There were—brace yourself—"flies fl[y]ing in and around the receptacle." And to crown all, "management engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence" by allowing this "condition to exist." The horror.
Buckingham Slate has racked up other fines, too—such as a $70,000 fine imposed because one of its trucks had an inoperable horn. Perhaps regulators were following the approach advocated by Al Armendariz, the former EPA official who said enforcers should "crucify" offenders to "make an example" of them, which would then make others "easy to manage."
According to President Obama's campaign rhetoric, Republicans have nothing to offer but "the same prescription they've had for the last 30 years…: 'Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!'"
Funny stuff. But Martha Boneta isn't laughing.
Boneta, a Fauquier County farmer, hosted a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls—an occasion for which she lacked the proper "events permit." For this, the county slammed her with a $5,000 fine. She also got in hot water for selling items, such as yarn and birdhouses, that she had not made herself.
Outraged over how the county was treating her, local farmers showed up at a zoning-board meeting a couple of months ago with pitchforks in hand. But the demonstration was only so useful. She ended up closing her shop anyway.
Americans should place more trust in "the guiding hand of government," according to the president and his supporters.
But try telling that to Nathan Hammock and his family. The Hammocks own a dairy farm Museville, Virginia. Because of drought, they wanted to put an irrigation pond on their property. They eventually managed to—after three years trying to get permission from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. "I think we've spent close to $30,000" in the process, Hammock says.
Hammock made the comment in a video you can find on the website of Rep. Robert Hurt (go to http://hurt.house.gov/ and click on "Videos"). Hurt, who represents Virginia's Fifth District, has introduced legislation to let farmers farm without having to navigate a "tremendous bureaucratic maze." It is moving through Congress—slowly.
The plural of anecdote, of course, is not data. So here are some data: In its first three years the Obama administration imposed more than 100 economically significant regulations—those costing $100 million or more. That's roughly four times as many as the Bush administration did during a similar period, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Liberal outfits insist Heritage is wrong. But even by their Obama-friendly accounting, the current president has been issuing major rules at a rate 24 percent faster than Bush. Despite the lip service he often pays to the free market, the president has overseen massive regulatory expansions. See, e.g., the banking industry; vehicle mileage standards; Obamacare's seemingly endless new rules; carbon emission limits on coal-fired power plants; energy-efficiency standards for home appliances; and dozens more.
According to a report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "The published regulatory burden for 2012 [alone] could exceed $105 billion…. Since January 1st, the federal government has imposed $56.6 billion in compliance costs and more than 114 million annual paperwork burden hours."
Ask Jones about paperwork. Buckingham Slate is overseen by an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies, and "each one of them wants something from us all the time that is costing us money"—spill-prevention plans that require hiring an engineer; pre-shift inspections; dust monitoring; and more. Jones estimates that five of his 45 employees spend 20 percent of their time simply filling out paperwork.
Of course we need regulation. It helps keep our food safe to eat and our air safe to breathe. Companies shouldn't be able to shift the costs of production onto the public by dumping pollutants into the environment. Everybody agrees with that. The real question is: At what point does regulation go too far?
"If you're a small operator, they're just putting you out of business," says Jones. "It doesn't matter that we can compete globally…. Sooner or later, that kind of regulation is going to shut you down."