President Donald Trump's first year in office saw the creation of fewer new federal regulations than any year since the National Archives started tracking regulatory rules in 1976. Even so, the administration created more than 3,200 new rules during 2017. That's 34 new regulations for every single bill passed by Congress.
That sort of dichotomy permeates a report published today by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based free market think tank.
On one hand, there is no doubt that the Trump administration has made slashing federal regulations a key policy goal. During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to remove two regulations from the books for every new one added. That atmosphere has reduced red tape and slowed the creation of new rules, says Clyde Wayne Crews, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the author of "10,000 Commandments," an annual assessment of the size of the federal regulatory state.
According to the new edition of "10,000 Commandments," the Trump administration delayed or repealed more than 1,500 regulations passed by the Obama administration. Congress helped out by using the Congressional Review Act to eliminate 15 Obama-era rules during 2017. The results include a rollback of the feds' role in land use decisions and an end to the Social Security Administration's attempt to regulate guns.
On the other hand, the federal regulatory state remains a massive entity that sucks $1.9 trillion out of the economy each year. And Trump's efforts to shrink it are under threat from his other, often countervailing, impulses.
"These are good things, but there are warning signs," Crews says. "President Trump's own apparent affinity for strong antitrust enforcement and protectionist trade policies threaten to undermine the economic gains from his regulatory reform efforts."
You can literally see how Trump stacks up against previous presidents by printing out the full length of the Federal Register, that annual behemoth that publishes every new rule issued by a federal department or agency. In 2016, Obama's final year in office, the register ran to a record length of 95,000 pages—far ahead of the previous record, set just one year before, of 80,000 pages. Thirteen of the 15 longest registers in American history were authored by Trump's two immediate predecessors.
Trump's 2017 register? A mere 61,308 pages, the lowest count since 1993.
While Trump delivered on his promise to cut two regulations for every new one added, there are worrying signs that federal rulemaking might increase in coming years. Agencies have three times as many regulatory actions as deregulatory actions in the pipeline, Crews says.
And only Congress can truly return the administrative state to a more limited role. As Matt Welch detailed in Reason last year, the growth of federal regulations is largely the result of Congress handing over too much rulemaking authority to federal agencies—and failing to hold agencies accountable for the rules they create.
"Ultimately, permanent regulatory streamlining will require Congress to act," says Crews.