A chance for Congress to do some good on regulation

If we had to pick a single inspiration for so many Hollywood movies, it would have to be “Maud Muller,” a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier published in pamphlet form 156 years ago.

The poem describes a chance meeting between a beautiful young woman, Maud, and a local judge. She is raking hay and he happens to ride by and, being thirsty, asks for a drink of water. They are immediately attracted to one another, so much so that each imagines a life married to the other.

Despite the electricity they both feel, only routine pleasantries are exchanged and they both pursue their separate courses in life. Neither ever forgot that moment, however, and each forever treasured its special sweetness. Near the end of the poem, Whittier writes,

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

“Maud Muller” was a popular poem in its time, but is rarely read or even mentioned today. We are all very familiar with it in a way, though, because the story it contains is a classic that has been rewritten, reworked and rebooted in Hollywood countless times. Of course, in equally classic Hollywood style the script writers often change the ending so that the unspoken lost loves or youthful sweethearts are given a second chance.

Many of us treasure a memory of encountering Congress, or the idea of Congress, when we were young. The romance and energy of the Revolution, the courage of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the great drama of American history and the responsibility for our future were embodied in this elected group of lawmakers. It was the Congress who provided the leadership that carved this country out of hard ideals, years before we had a president.

Maybe we don’t speak of it, but that memory of Congress is still there for many of us, even those who have become critics. And, like many treasured memories, it can be rekindled.

In largely unnoticed hearings recently held by the House Judiciary Committee, Congress might have received a second chance. Called “Regulation Nation: the Obama administration’s Regulatory Expansion vs. Jobs and Economic Recovery,” the hearings sought to fathom the impact of federal regulations on our lagging economy.

The House of Representatives had passed several bills to freeze new rules until the economy recovers and to alter the regulatory structure, but they were victims of the political impasse. The Senate has ignored these bills and the President vowed to veto them should they somehow reach his desk.

Testimony at the hearings began with Stanford economist, John B. Taylor, who provided a strong argument that poor economic policies, including the “expansion of costly regulations,” were suffocating the economic recovery. The history and analysis he provided of bureaucratic expansion in the federal regulations industry suggests that we may have reached the so-called “tipping point” where the economy is foundering and struggling to stay afloat.

Much of the subsequent testimony by business owners and managers was heartfelt and real, but not unexpected. The stories of the federal regulatory apparatus and its impact on business have become depressingly familiar. A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the National Association of Manufacturers found that nearly 70 percent of small business owners and manufacturers say that the President’s regulatory policies have hurt small businesses.

In contrast with the business reports, Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, provided a spirited defense of federal regulations, but that, by itself, was not unexpected. Professor Heinzerling has held various positions with the EPA and was a member of President Barack Obama’s EPA transition team.

Included in her testimony, though, was a useful reminder of a problem that has troubled economists for some time. She explained why a traditional method of evaluating the impact of regulations, cost-benefit analysis, does not work very well. Essentially, the problem with applying cost-benefit analysis to proposed regulations is that the costs are visible and easily compiled while the benefits, especially of things that don’t happen, are not readily calculated.

With the economic analysis provided by Professor Taylor and the perspective provided by Professor Heinzerling, Congress has a new way to approach the regulatory issue. Congress in the past has been left to make decisions on new regulations based almost purely on politics. Now Congress is getting an opportunity to straighten out the regulatory mess in a less adversarial way.

More than that, though, what the testimony in the Congressional hearings on the economics of federal regulations has given us, though, is a rekindling of a treasured memory. Maybe Congress can stand up straight and once again be what it should be. They’re writing the script, after all.

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