Framing the Dialogue

On Government Exemptions

In their attempt to cover all scenarios with regulations governments never seem to learn from their mistakes and always creates unintended consequences.   This is quite a dilemma for government as they certainly want to give the perception of fairness and create a set of rules that will achieve their goals and cover all of the bases.  Rather than simplifying things they increase the complexity and you end up with 2000+ page bills.  I would estimate that for each page of law you probably get 250 pages of regulations.  We should keep in mind that by creating this bureaucracy they also provide cover (i.e. covering their butts) for themselves when/if the spit hits the fan. 

One certainty in government work is that if you apply common sense and go out on a limb you WILL, at some point, be punished.  You are most likely protected and will not be fired, but they’ll beat you down so that you’ll never give in to the temptation of logical thinking again.  In fact many will not make a decision unless it is clearly written in regulations.  So the cycle becomes creating cumbersome rules that attempt to cover the bases thus creating the scenario where common sense cannot be used when faced with the unforeseen circumstance.  An offshoot of this is the ever-detailed requests for more information. 

I remember a case where I was a member of a technical committee considering new rules for a particular heavily regulated industry.  There was concern that a critical component of their structure would eventually be buried and it would be impossible to access it for inspection.  The group proposed requiring that the industry keep samples of the component in similar conditions of the buried components and periodically test them. 

That does not sound unreasonable, except that there were no scientific protocols for collecting, maintaining, and testing these components.  There is an organization called the American Society of Testing Materials (“ASTM”) that provides detailed procedures for such activities, though not this process.  Our requirements would force owners to take on considerable expense and open them to potential significant liability (if materials failed) without any scientific basis by which to conduct or evaluate the results of the tests.  That sounds unreasonable and as we discussed this most members were persuaded that this was stupid.  We did have one hold out.  He drove me absolutely nuts and while I can no longer remember his name I remember his response when I told them that any results without a scientific basis were NOTHING!  His response; “Yeah but at least we have something.”  At least we have something!  .

A recent article provides a great example of how government regulations can never cover all scenarios.  The Federal Highway Administration issued regulations requiring bigger and more readable road name signs.  That sounds reasonable and localities have until 2018 to comply.  Heck there was probably even “stimulus” money available for new signs.  Two unseen factors were the cost (I believe that the cost for NYC was in the tens of millions of dollars) and places where the new bigger signs interfere with the décor of some communities. 

Enter the citizens of Ardmore, Pennsylvania where they have “small green and gold signs that have marked streets…for nearly a century.”  The residents are balking at both the cost and the intrusion of the feds into their community.  This sounds rather frivolous, but the residents are taking this seriously as one was quoted;

“The loss of these signs, to me, would be an epic tragedy.  Let’s pray the tragedy is avoidable, but only if the community and its elected representatives and staff work together.”

I think a 2,000+ page Obamacare bill approaches the epic tragedy level though I freely admit to not having seen those green and gold signs.  My community is swapping their blue signs for newer blue signs.  They creatively put up the old signs up for sale.  In an attempt to do some good, the Federal Highway Administration is causing some trouble for many communities during tough economic times.

Since I mentioned Obamacare I should mention that some of the early requirements are already having an impact on businesses.  Much news was made when McDonalds came out and said that they were dropping health care coverage for many employees because of the new mandates.  Since, perhaps, it was an election year McDonalds received a waiver from the rules.  In fairness the White House has issued over 220 waivers.  Many of his biggest contributors and supporters like unions have secured the waivers.  I could not find any data on what justified the waivers or whether any had been requested and not granted. 

Why would such a well thought out piece of legislation cause so many problems so fast?

Why am I not surprised?

This post was updated on January 27, 2011 and you can follow this link to read it.

Leave a comment

Use basic HTML (<a href="">, <strong>, <blockquote>)