Congress needs to keep a closer eye on the departments and agencies that carry out the laws it passes. Its failure to keep bureaucrats in line is further undermining trust in government and imposing costs on manufacturers and consumers.
The federal government adds new rules every day. Last year, 26,286 new rules were made in Washington totaling 89,368 pages, according to the Office of the Federal Register. Many of these are well intended, but some create problems for the people and organizations they are supposed to help – and Congress doesn’t intervene enough to hold these agencies accountable.
The U.S. government is the world’s biggest organization with an annual budget of more than $6 trillion. It has many systems to police itself, including investigative arms to spotlight chronic management challenges that must be regularly reported to Congress. Yet lawmakers often don’t fix the issues they are alerted to.
A perfect example are the long-deficient information technology systems in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They undertake functions vital to protecting human health and public safety. The EPA is also important to administering chemical safety reviews and regulations. Many stakeholders are rightly supportive of additional funding for EPA to address business-critical functions and staff training to fill the agency’s skills gaps. Without these improvements, the agency’s performance in too many ways has become subpar. Yet lawmakers have not addressed the issues that cause these problems.
Congress took steps in the right direction with an EPA oversight hearing in January led by Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Still, Congress would be wise to take a page from history to maximize its full potential. Twenty years ago, a House Appropriations subcommittee would routinely hold two days of testimony and hear from more than a dozen senior agency leaders from federal regulatory agencies. Lawmakers gained invaluable knowledge to guide the agency and prepare for the next year’s appropriations process. In contrast, the same subcommittee last year dedicated just 90 minutes of a single day and had only one witness.
Other parts of government also get short shrift. 2023 was one of the least productive years in Congress’s history and the American people know it. A survey last year by the Pew Research Center revealed that fewer than two-in-ten Americans trust that the government in Washington will do what is right. Gallup’s annual update on trust in government institutions last year found Americans have the least faith in Congress (32 percent) of all government institutions.
Manufacturers have to pay large sums to comply with the tsunami of regulations that are put out by agencies that are not being held to account. According to a 2023 report from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the total cost of federal regulations is an estimated $3.079 trillion, an amount equal to 12 percent of U.S. GDP. The total cost of complying with federal regulations has risen by $465 billion since 2012. The annual cost burden for an average U.S. firm is $277,000, the equivalent of 19 percent of the average firm’s payroll expenses.
Holding federal agencies accountable is a core responsibility of Congress. In the face of ever rising expenditures, the legislative branch must take a lesson from history and reassert its authority to restore the trust of Americans. They deserve it.