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Romney’s Stupidest Idea of the Week

One of the signature policy proposals that Mitt Romney outlined in his economic plan and highlighted in his USA Today op-ed last week is a policy that is as pernicious in practice as it sounds unthreatening. On page 61 of his plan, Romney proposes to cap the rate at which agencies would impose new regulations at zero. This means that if an agency is required by law to issue a new regulation, it must offset the costs, presumably by eliminating some other regulations. Essentially, Romney is proposing to adopt pay-as-you-go budgeting to regulations. 

It’s not entirely clear if this rule applies to each agency—would the Food and Drug Administration have to eliminate some food inspection rules if they created some new regulations of food?—or if this is government-wide policy, so if the government creates rules in one area, it would be required to undo rules in another, unrelated area. But either way, this policy would have far-reaching negative consequences. Imagine, for instance, if a cap on regulations was in place after the financial crisis, when lack of regulation of Wall Street led to the cratering of the economy. Under this proposal, in order to regulate Wall Street to ensure that economic devastation couldn’t happen again, the federal government would have to eliminate regulations on food or water or air, or some other protections. Where is the logic of undoing clean air regulations because new consumer protections are needed?

Behind this policy response is a simple animosity towards any rules for businesses that come at the expense of profits. Republicans have been arguing that regulatory uncertainty is hurting job growth because businesses supposedly refuse to make hiring decisions when they don’t know what the rules will be. But if anything were going to feed uncertainty, it would be a rule that haphazardly and randomly picks old rules to eliminate once new rules were created. Companies make decisions about their future assuming those regulations stay in place; eliminating old regulations will simply favor some firms over others. 

The bigger point to be made, however, is that regulations are not what are ailing our economy now, nor are they hindering growth. McClatchy recently surveyed small business owners on why they weren’t employing additional people—none offered regulation among the barriers to hiring. (That’s why it’s particularly unfortunate that the president recently fed the Republican obsession with his suspension of the ozone rule, citing “regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover,” as part of his rationale.) In fact, if anything, greater regulation can be correlated with greater growth: Over the last 50 years, the decades of the highest growth rates for our economy saw the greatest expansion of government and its regulations. Growth rates were highest in the 1960s at 4.55 percent for the decade, when we created Medicare, Medicaid, and the Great Society poverty programs—our greatest expansion of government. And growth rates were the lowest in the last decade, averaging only 1.38 percent. I think it is safe to say George Bush was not a friend of regulation. 

But if regulations aren’t the culprit, what is? What’s holding up hiring now is that there is not enough demand in the economy. Even bond traders like Bill Gross acknowledge the need for direct federal help for job creation and growth. To actually create jobs, Republicans should come to the table with the president and pass ideas they have supported in the past, like investment in roads and bridges and hiring teachers who have been laid off. But because Republican ideology will not tolerate federal policies that actually help create jobs, they are reduced to pithy sounding policies on regulations that are just another way of getting rid of protections for consumers in order to help corporations.

As a former policy director on a presidential campaign, I am sympathetic to the desire to try to propose “new” policy ideas that sound good in a speech or a press paper. In the back and forth of a campaign, reporters, campaign press staff, and even the candidates can demand new policies in areas that have been well-trodden and don’t typically make for exciting speeches. But a serious candidate has to put forward serious ideas to solve actual problems. And for a candidate trying to distinguish himself from a Texas governor ready to shoot from the hip, Mitt Romney’s cap on regulation does not meet that test.

Neera Tanden is the chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.