The towering Federal Register

This week marks the publication of the 20th anniversary edition of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s annual survey of the federal regulatory state, Ten Thousand Commandments. The report takes a big-picture look at the cost and scope of federal regulations. Among other eye-popping numbers, this year’s edition estimates the total federal regulatory burden at $1.8 trillion per year and growing — the first time ever that the cost of regulation has exceeded half the size of the federal budget.

The report contains a fuller picture of how the regulatory state has come to overshadow every area of America’s economy, but for now we’d like to concentrate on one facet of the regulatory state that has grown over the last two decades: the Federal Register.

The Federal Register is a daily digest published by the federal government since 1936. It contains proposed regulations from agencies, finalized rules, notices, corrections, and presidential documents. The 1936 Federal Register was 2,620 pages long. It has grown steadily since then, with the 2012 edition weighing in at 78,961 pages (it has topped 60,000 pages every year for the last 20 years).

The Federal Register’s page count is by no means a perfect proxy for measuring regulatory burdens. A particularly onerous regulation might take up only a page or two, while one that costs relatively little could ramble on for dozens of pages. Despite this important shortcoming, it is still one of the more useful yardsticks we have, as it indicates a large and active federal government. Now let’s do some measuring.

Since the first edition of Ten Thousand Commandments was published in 1993, a touch less than 1.43 million Federal Register pages have been published. That’s an average of 71,470 pages per year. Considering that an average year has 250 workdays (the Federal Register is not published on weekends or holidays), that roughly averages out to 286 pages per day. It takes a very busy federal government to fill that many pages each and every workday.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around large figures like 1.43 million, other than knowing that any number with a certain number of zeroes is very, very large. So let’s make that abstraction a little more concrete. A standard ream of printer paper contains 500 pages. A standard carton of 10 reams contains 5,000 pages. Thus, to print the last 20 years’ editions of the Federal Register, you would need 286 of these cartons — enough to fill a small room.

A standard ream of 20-pound weight paper, standard for office use, is about two inches thick. From that, we can calculate that our 1.43 million-page stack would be 476 feet tall. It would also weigh more than seven tons. Fittingly, this regulatory tower would rival the Washington Monument’s 555 feet for supremacy of Washington’s skyline. In fact, if the tower were to keep growing at its 20-year average pace, it would surpass the Washington Monument in 2016.

Since the publication of the first edition of Ten Thousand Commandments, it has been a very busy 20 years in Washington. It is in everyone’s interest that the next 20 years see the growth of government slowed or even reversed. There is a wide array of reforms available to make that happen. For starters, Congress should vote on all major regulations, instead of delegating away its lawmaking authority to unelected agencies. Increased oversight of unfunded mandates would rein in regulations that impose undue costs on state governments and the private sector. The president should appoint an annual independent commission to comb through the books and send to Congress a yearly package of old, obsolete, and harmful rules slated for elimination, subject to an up-or-down vote.

Every edition of the Federal Register published since the first edition of Ten Thousand Commandments already exceeded Washington, D.C.’s height limit for buildings. It is well past time to slow its growth and bring it down to Earth.

Wayne Crews is Vice President for Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies.