Occupational Licensing

Occupational Licensing Reform Is a Biden Policy We Can All Favor

Occupational licensing rules are more often arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles than they are protections for health or safety.


Digging through a modern major-party candidate's proposals for good ideas is like wading into a cesspool in search of treasure; maybe you'll find it, but don't get your hopes up. But Democratic nominee Joe Biden—who looks likely to win the presidential election—actually has a gem hidden amidst a lot of, well, what you'd expect to find in a cesspool: he favors easing occupational licensing requirements. That's not only a good idea, it's a rare bit of wise policy that wins support across the political spectrum.

"Put an end to unnecessary occupational licensing requirements," Biden's campaign website promises, though you have to scroll through a lot of blather about evil corporations and saintly unions to find it. "While licensing is important in some occupations to protect consumers, in many occupations licensing does nothing but thwart economic opportunity. If licensed workers choose to move to new states for higher-paying jobs, they often have to get certified all over again."

Biden isn't a newcomer to occupational licensing reform, either; it's a theme he's maintained through the years and during the course of his presidential campaign.

"Why should someone who braids hair have to get 600 hours of training? It makes no sense," he told a union audience in Pittsburgh last year. "They're making it harder and harder in a whole range of professions, all to keep competition down."

Extra credit to the guy for making the case to organized labor, which isn't generally enthusiastic about reducing barriers to entry for workers.

Biden carries forward his concern about occupational licensing reform from his time as vice president under Barack Obama. Voicing worries about declining labor mobility and disappearing job prospects, the Obama administration produced an in-depth report on the problems posed by requiring people to seek government permission to work in their chosen fields.

"Over the past several decades, the share of U.S. workers holding an occupational license has grown sharply," the report warned. "There is evidence that licensing requirements raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across State lines."

The report went on to note that "over 1,100 occupations are regulated in at least one State, but fewer than 60 are regulated in all 50 States" and that "States also have very different requirements for obtaining a license." The obvious implication is that licensing rules are more often arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles than they are protections for health or safety.

Dedication to encouraging states to ease their licensing rules was among the rare bits of policy continued when Donald J. Trump succeeded Obama as president.

"States must end the practice of excessive licensure," Ivanka Trump tweeted last year. "In 1950 less than 5% of occupations were licensed. Today it is closer to 30%. The Americans hurt the most by this overreaching regulatory regime are those living on the margins, including returning citizens."

Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence's wife, has championed reform of occupational licensing rules in her role as an advocate for military families.

"Karen Pence champions occupational licensing reform and recognizes it as a key action to address military spouse employment challenges," the White House announced about her efforts last week. "Today, approximately one third of military spouses work in fields that require a state-issued professional license or certification in order to practice their professions. Additionally, military spouses move on average every two to three years and those frequent moves and state licensing change requirements have led to significant expenses, lost wages, and gaps in employment."

The military-spouses angle gives federal officials a platform on a matter that is normally a matter of state policy. D.C. officials chastising governors and state lawmakers over laws that abuse aspiring entrepreneurs and lower-income job seekers might be interpreted as butting-in, but no elected officials want to be seen as mistreating the military.

That angle has also made occupational licensing reform an example of deregulatory policy that—try not to faint!—both Democrat and Republican officials can like. That's why reform, when it occurs, has been shockingly bipartisan.

"Governor Tom Wolf signed HB 1172 … that cuts bureaucratic red tape to make it easier for new Pennsylvanians, including military spouses, with an out-of-state occupational license to work," the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania boasted in July 2019. "The license could be issued on an individual basis if the licensure requirements in the other state, territory or country are determined to be substantially similar to Pennsylvania's requirements."

"Arizona's licensing boards and commissions will now be required to recognize occupational licenses granted in other states during the licensing process, something already done for spouses of military personnel deployed to Arizona," the Grand Canyon State's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced two months later.

That's not to say that every jurisdiction has embraced making it easier for people to work. California stands out for its resistance to making employment easier (although, even there, some modest improvements have passed). But licensing reform has undoubtedly picked up steam as it becomes obvious that making people seek permission to cut hair or decorate homes has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with protecting existing businesses from upstart competitors.

The pandemic has eroded the alleged wisdom of licensing, too, as state and federal officials cooperated to ease rules that prevented health care workers from crossing state lines to provide the same sort of care they offered at home. Red tape that served only to pad established practitioners' bank accounts in good times became obstructionist menaces when a crisis hit.

So, good for Joe Biden for championing a cause that helps people, makes the country freer, and has a chance to win support from partisans of all stripes. Let's hope he spends a lot of time and energy pushing this proposal. Occupational licensing reform may be a rare treasure bobbing in the current political cesspool, but that gives us a place to start.