Rules and Fools: EPA and CEI

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., May 7, 2010 — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency never saw a regulation it didn’t like. The Competitive Enterprise Institute never saw one it did.

Now the federal agency and the Washington-based conservative think tank are involved in a silly but amusing battle of “Did not! Did so!” It promises to be, as much in Washington these days, much ado about nothing, but fun for awhile. The dueling approach to the holiness of regulation has already prompted a typically nasty, profane, name-calling fracas on CEI’s web site.

EPA started the regulatory brawl rolling with a fully fatuous contest, announced in a press release in early May. “Explain rulemaking and win $2,500,” exclaimed the breathless EPA release. The agency wants 90-second video paens to federal rules posted on YouTube.

Introducing the idea, EPA made an entirely brainless observation, “Even before you leave the house in the morning,” said the agency, “government regulations help set the price of the coffee you drink, the voltage of the electricity your alarm clock uses, and the types of programming allowed on the morning news.”

Let’s examine those bogus claims.

Who sets coffee prices? Not the federal government. Coffee prices are set on free, competitive markets, mostly through futures contracts at the ICE Futures US exchange (formerly the New York Board of Trade). Should the government help set the price of coffee? I don’t think so.

About the alarm clock voltage. What federal government agency is responsible for that? One could argue that since 2005, the federal government has indirectly regulated voltage support in electric transmission and distribution, through NERC. Prior to the 2005 Energy Policy Act, voltage regulation was voluntary, although nobody in the industry refused to play. There is no evidence that the new quasi-governmental NERC has produced a system more reliable in any way than the old, voluntary NERC.

As for the programming on the morning news, has the EPA forgotten about the First Amendment? The FCC governs spectrum allocation, dirty words (ala the late George Carlin), but not news content. Otherwise, Fox News would be off the air.

Three swings, three misses. EPA, you’re out.

Who at EPA came up with this empty-headed stuff? Junk like this really inspires confidence in government. EPA says, “This video contest is your opportunity to explain federal rulemaking and motivate other to participate in the rulemaking process.” I would offer that it is impossible to “explain federal rulemaking” in 90 minutes, so doing it in 90 seconds is, at best, ridiculous. EPA’s movie contest proves my point.

CEI immediately jumped into the EPA contest, with a 90-second video on YouTube, “A Day in the Life of the Regulatory State,” mocking EPA mercilessly. The video follows a dorky-looking young guy from waking in the morning, followed by breakfast, time at work, and to a hamburger stand at lunch. The video ends with our hero’s image plastered with logos from federal government agencies, and then an ominous quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will.”

CEI is entitled to take on EPA’s idiocy with it’s own over-the-top rhetoric. The video begins with a arrow pointing the character’s bed, apparently referring indirectly to the government-mandated mattress tag. This is a common butt of regulatory jokes, and, until 1973, the tag – attesting to the quality of the stuff material – said it could not be removed “Under Penalty of Law.”

Imagine the Mattress Gestapo arriving at your house, discovering you have removed the mattress tag, and hauling you off to the torture chamber, sans mattress.

It’s funny, it’s ubiquitous. But the tag gag is not quite what it is hyped up to be, according to veteran professional cleaner Nancy Paglia. The tag actually says that “under penalty of law this tag may not be removed except by consumer.” But I’ll grant CEI comedic license.

There is plenty of regulatory excess that lends itself to ridicule, and there is no doubt that EPA disserves whatever it gets from CEI in its 90-second video. Nonetheless, regulation is properly part of our everyday lives. The criminal code, traffic laws, non-discrimination rules (including voting rights) are all part of the regulatory environment, and I would argue, a useful and welcome part.

The quarrel with regulation is really a beef about bad, ham-handed, needless, and counterproductive regulation. This is something EPA knows a lot about; they are champions of bad regulation.