Report to Congress on the Costs and Benefits of Federal Regulations
Appendix: Summary of Public Comments
This appendix summarizes the public comments on the four issues we asked about in the
July 22nd, Federal Register Notice and our preliminary reaction to them. Because of time and
resource constraints on our part (we were still receiving comments and suggestions for
improvement as of September 23, 1997), we were not able to make all the changes and
improvements in this report that may have been warranted. However, we intend to continue
working with the agencies and the public after this report is submitted to consider these
suggestions further and implement those that are promising.
Quality of Cost and Benefit Estimates
The first issue on which we asked for comments in the July 22nd draft report concerned
"The validity and reliability of the quantitative and qualitative measures of the costs and benefits
of regulations in the aggregate, as well as of the individual regulations issued between April 1,
1996, and March 31, 1997, discussed in the attached draft report."
One theme that was repeated in several comments was that we had under emphasized the
value of "knowing the exact amounts of total costs and benefits." These commenters argued that
the public has a right to know what the total costs and benefits of regulations are and that
regulatory accounting would help inform the political process and shape the debate over
regulatory reform. They also note that our current position is inconsistent with statements made
by OMB in the early 1990's that discussed the regulatory budget concept and by academic
experts such as Hahn and Litan (1997) and Crandall, et al (1997).
It appears that there may have been some misunderstanding of our present and past
position on the significance of aggregate data. It is true that we state ". . . but knowing the exact
amounts of total costs and benefits, even if that were possible, adds little of value." But the
operative terms are "exact" and "total." The fact that we do not believe that knowing the exact
total cost or benefit of all regulations adds much policy content, does not mean that we believe
that knowing the costs and benefits of individual regulations is unimportant. On the contrary, a
key theme of the report is the importance for good regulatory decision making of knowing the
costs and benefits of individual regulations before they are issued.
Nor is our position inconsistent with our past statements or with the academic articles
cited on the subject of a regulatory budget. The past OMB statements cited were discussion
pieces that recommended further study and experimentation with the concept of a regulatory
budget. We still believe that further analytical work needs to be done to improve regulatory
accounting and recommend such work in this report. But as Hahn and Litan (1997) state in their
report, Improving Regulatory Accountability, which several commenters cite, ". . . aggregate
estimates are less important initially because the best way to affect policy in the short term is to
modify individual regulations . . ." Moreover, although they also add that ". . . aggregate
estimates do have value," they are clearly referring to aggregate estimates for regulatory "areas,"
not the aggregate of all regulations. Even the regulatory budget they suggest Congress may wish
to experiment with (See Crandall et al, 1997) is limited to specific areas and circumstances, such
as where costs exceed benefits.
A second concern expressed by commenters about our estimates of costs and benefits was
that our estimates were systematically biased. While the charge was leveled by a number of
commenters, there was disagreement among them as to how our estimates were biased. Most
industry representatives and think tanks asserted that our estimates understated costs and
overstated benefits, while the public interest groups and Federal agencies generally asserted that
our estimates overstated costs and understated benefits. Two reasons that were given for the
belief that our estimates of costs and benefits were systematically biased warrant some
First, is the theory that agency estimates, upon which many but not all of our estimates
are based, systematically understate costs and overstate benefits because agency self-interest lies
in regulation. Although this view of agency behavior enjoys widespread support among
academics as a theoretical matter, there is little documentation available to support it -- perhaps
because there are several potentially offsetting factors. For example, much of the data that
agencies use to make their estimates of costs comes from the regulated entities who generally
have the opposite incentives -- namely, they will likely overstate costs to help convince decision
makers not to issue the regulation. Also, as noted in our report, competitive firms over time
frequently find more cost-effective ways, including new technologies, to comply with regulations
than had been envisioned ex ante. Some commenters pointed to a set of case studies that is about
to be published to support this contention. On the other hand, there is a large body of literature
that shows that agencies tend to overestimate the benefits of their programs because, over time,
technological progress -- in communications to energy exploration to infectious disease -- has
reduced the long run expected benefits of earlier regulations. We believe that the question of
these types of systematic bias is unresolved and would profit from further analysis, which we
intend to pursue over the next year or so.
The second reason that some commenters thought our cost and benefit estimates were
systematically biased was because they claimed we ignored indirect costs and benefits. As we
stated in the report, our totals included only direct cost and benefit estimates because there is no
consensus about or transparent estimate of the indirect costs, and even if there were, there are no
comparable estimates of the indirect benefits of regulation, which could occur because of the
improved health and longevity that health, safety, and environmental regulation produce. We
believe that the question of indirect costs and benefits also deserves further consideration.
Numerous commenters also raised questions about some of our specific estimates for
economic, environmental and other social regulation. With respect to economic regulation,
several commenters raised questions about our estimates of the costs and benefits of this type of
regulation. They were especially concerned with our statement in the draft report:
"Economic regulation, including antitrust, may produce social benefits
when natural monopolies are regulated to stimulate competition or when firms are
prevented from anticompetitive collusion and mergers. In a dynamic economy, however,
the dollar amount of such economic efficiency benefits are thought to be
small (Hahn and Hird 1991)."
Based on the Hahn and Hird survey, we entered "zero" for the benefits of economic regulation in
the draft report. The comments that we received on this point convinced us that was a mistake.
In this report we enter an asterisk for benefits with an explanation of what we had intended.
Part of the confusion that arose on this point stems from the fact that we were using a
narrower definition of "economic regulation" than what may generally be understood to be
included by the term. We stated in the draft report that:
"Economic regulation is so-called because it directly restricts firms' primary economic activities, e.g., its pricing and output decisions. It may also limit the entry or exit of firms
into or out of certain specific types of businesses."
Some commenters, on the other hand, thought economic regulation included anti-trust
enforcement, financial soundness and capital market regulation, and regulation aimed at fraud
and deception, which they assert provide significant benefits. We are partly to blame for this
confusion because we did not make it clear that these types of activities, which may be viewed
by some to be regulating economic activity, were not intended to be included in the "economic
regulation" category because they do not directly regulate firms' pricing, output, or entry
For example, anti-trust enforcement by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade
Commission is not generally done through regulation. Financial soundness regulations, such as
the Federal Reserve System's reserve requirements and deposit insurance together with the
supervision and regulation required to avoid moral hazard, as well as SEC regulation of the
capital markets, were also not counted in our estimates of either costs or benefits because they
are not generally considered traditional economic regulation. If they were, the benefits of such
"regulation" would almost certainly dominate the totals. As several commenters noted, these
types of requirements may have averted a financial collapse such as we had during the Great
Depression before these controls were put in place. Finally, the treatment of the regulation of
fraud and deception is somewhat more complicated. To the extent it is done through general
disclosure requirements, such as those issued by the FTC, the SEC and the Federal Reserve (truth
in lending), it probably should be included in the social regulation category rather than in
economic regulation because disclosure requirements do not regulate prices, output, or entry. In
any case, the studies we used did not, for the most part, include either cost or benefit estimates of
these types of activities. In our final report, we attempt to make it clear how we define "
economic regulation," and we note that even for the activities we consider traditional regulation
there are significant uncertainties. We did add a category for consumer protection regulation and
for that purpose we used estimates of paperwork burden, based on our information collection
budget for the independent agencies whose regulations we do not review. That provided us with
cost estimates, but it does not provide benefit estimates. We again used an asterisk to indicate
that significant unestimated benefits may exist from these disclosure requirements.
Several commenters also raised questions about the lack of benefits for economic
regulations that were included in the Hahn and Hird estimates. The case for benefits from
economic regulation (as we define it) rests on the case of the natural monopoly, where an
industry's cost can be minimized only by having a single firm produce. Regulation can then
improve social welfare by inducing firms to price efficiently. A case in point is local telephone
markets, where the FCC has produced significant welfare benefits to consumers of local phone
services through the lower prices that result from mandating interconnections to the local loop.
Others contend that natural monopolies are dependent on technology and demand and both have
a habit over time of undermining natural monopolies. Furthermore, the history of regulatory
agencies which regulate natural monopolies, including the FCC up to the ATT breakup, has
been one characterized by their slow adaptation to technological and market changes to the
detriment of consumers. Whatever the validity of this generalization, one commenter suggested
that currently the benefits of local phone regulation to consumers could be as high as $34 billion.
Clearly this issue deserves more study.
Several commenters also raised questions about our estimates of the costs and benefits of
environmental regulation. One commenter argued that our base case estimate for the cost of
environmental regulation in 1988 was an overstatement because it was based on EPA's Cost of
Clean report, which included costs that should have been attributed to state and local regulations.
The Cost of Clean report provided an aggregate estimate including the costs of State and local
regulations in its totals, but it also disaggregated the total into various components, including an
estimate for Federally mandated regulations, excluding costs that arise from State and local
actions. We used the Federally mandated costs for our estimates. The commenters also pointed
out that some expenditures on automobile emissions regulations would undoubtedly continue
even it EPA regulations were rescinded and therefore these costs should not be included. We
made this same point in our discussion of the rising baseline phenomenon, but also pointed out
that this implied that the benefits of these regulations should not be counted either. There is
currently no way to know which expenditures originally incurred because of regulation would
continue to be incurred even if those regulations were rescinded. On the other hand, since it is
likely that the expenditures that would be continued are likely to be the ones that produce the
most benefits, this phenomenon implies that the ex post ratio of benefits to costs is likely to be
less than the ex ante ratio. In the report, we generally use ex ante estimates but note that the
rising baseline phenomenon implies that both costs and benefits are likely to be overstatements
of the effects of removing regulation.
One commenter also asserted that our estimate of the benefits of environmental regulation
were understated because the benefit cost ratio that we used to extrapolate benefits for the 1987
to 1996 period, which was based on Hahn's (1996) estimates of the benefits and costs of EPA
regulations over the period 1990 to 1995, was based on benefits and costs for those actions and
we should have used a benefit-cost ratio based on all regulations, not just the most recent ones.
The implicit assumption behind this recommendation is that the benefit cost ratios of
environmental regulations systematically decline over time, presumably because the most cost-effective regulations are issued first. If that is so, then using benefit cost ratios for the most
recent regulations to extrapolate to all regulations would understate benefits. But there is little
empirical evidence for this proposition, perhaps because over time agencies are learning to do a
better job in designing more cost-effective regulations. In fact the Hahn and Hird's 1988
baseline benefit cost ratio for environmental regulation is lower that Hahn's (1996) ratio based
on regulation issued between 1990 and 1995. Thus the procedure recommended by this
commenter would lower the estimated benefits of environmental regulation, not increase them as
the commenter asserted.
Direct and Indirect Effects of Regulation
The second issue on which we requested comments was our discussion of the indirect
effects of regulation. Several commenters suggested that more work should be done in assessing
the indirect impacts of Federal regulation on various sectors of the economy. We acknowledge
that our summary of the literature on the direct and indirect effects of regulation on the economy
did raise more questions than it answered, but we also believe it is a fair summary of the existing
knowledge in the area. Our main points were that these effects are important but they occur on
both the cost and benefit side and it is not clear which side predominates. Clearly more work
needs to be done on this issue.
One commenter suggested that the affects of regulation on innovation, wages,
employment, and income distribution should be examined. We agree. Executive Order 12866
calls on the agencies to examine and consider the distributional and equity effects of regulations
that they propose to issue. We believe that both OMB and the agencies can do a better job in
estimating the distributional and equity effects of regulation. This is another area that we hope to
be able to work on with the agencies over the next few years to improve our performance.
In our July 22nd draft report, we also asked commenters to provide " any additional
studies that might provide reliable estimates or assessments of the annual costs and benefits, or
direct and indirect effects, of regulation in the aggregate or of the individual regulations" that we
discussed in the draft report. Several commenters did suggest, and in some cases sent, studies of
the costs and benefits of regulatory programs. Several of the studies have only recently been
completed, while others are drafts of reports that are still under review. Moreover, we have not
had time to evaluate them for reliability and their consistency with the studies that we have used
in arriving at our estimates. Over the next year, we intend to review these materials and any
others that become available. Below is a brief description of the studies we received.
The Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve sent us a recently
completed staff study that summarizes the results of various other studies of the cost of banking
regulation (Elliehausen 1997). The study concludes that the incremental cost of banking
regulations in 1991 was about $7.7 billion. Incremental costs was defined as costs that banks
would not incur but for Federal regulation. The study also concluded that banks spend another
$8 billion or so to comply with regulations that they would spend even in the absence of Federal
regulation. One of the studies that the Fed staff relies on is a study by the accounting firm, Grant
Thorton (1993), which was sent to us directly by the Independent Bankers Association of
The American Water Works Association sent us three studies : Estimating the Costs of
Compliance With Drinking Water Standards: A User Guide, Methods for Valuing the Benefits of
the Safe Drinking Water Act: Review and Assessment, and the Cost-Effectiveness of SDWA
Regulations. This material contains information on cost and benefit estimation methodology and
some estimates of the costs of drinking water regulations.
The American Automobile Manufacturers Association sent us several articles, including a
1991 study by NHTSA, Moving America More Safely and Tengs, et al, "Five Hundred Life-Saving Interventions and Their Cost-Effectiveness."
The U. S. Chamber of Commerce sent one of their recent publications, Federal
Regulation and its Effects on Business, reporting on two nationwide surveys of business
experiences with Federal regulation. The study provides information on how many businesses
perceive the regulatory process and offers suggestions as to what types of regulations businesses
fine most burdensome.
The Environmental Defense Fund sent their July 1997 report, Toxic Ignorance: The
Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States,
which points out that the benefits of environmental regulation cannot be estimated if we lack
basic data on the toxicity of high-volume chemicals.
The American Enterprise Institute sent us two recent studies that it and the Brookings
Institution just published, Improving Regulatory Accountability (Hahn and Litan 1997) and An
Agenda for Regulatory Reform (Crandall et al 1997). These studies offer numerous proposals
intended to improve the regulatory system.
Many other commenters cited various studies in support of their various suggestions to
help improve our understanding of the impact of regulation, some of which we were unfamiliar
with. We intend to review these studies to broaden our understanding of the issue discussed in
Inefficient Regulatory Programs or Program Elements
Finally, we asked commenters to identify "programs or program elements on which there
is objective and verifiable information that would lead to a conclusion that such programs are
inefficient or ineffective and should be eliminated or reformed." Many of the recommendations
we received were for reforms to the regulatory process. There were surprisingly few specific
regulatory programs or program elements that were identified for us. The fact that we received
so few proposals for reforming specific programs or regulations, especially accompanied with
supportive studies, reinforces our conclusion that it is premature to make specific
recommendations about reforming specific regulatory programs. We will continue to review the
information we received and other information on the costs, benefits and other effects of
regulation for the purpose of finding candidates for reform. The following describes the
suggestion we have received to date.
Professor Hopkins of the Rochester Institute of Technology recommended that OMB list
particular regulations that "fail" a benefit-cost test, identify the efficiency gain from their reform
or rescission, and indicate any legal or other obstacles to taking action. As an example of a rule
whose costs exceeds its benefits, Hopkins offered EPA's recently promulgated National Ambient
Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone.
The Business Roundtable (BR) listed both EPA's ozone and particulate matter NAAQSs
as "prime examples" of inefficient and ineffective rules, whose costs are ". . . far in excess of any
benefits." BR stated that the costs of the standards are so large that the resulting reductions in
living standards and subsequent ability to afford health and medical needs would lead to an
increase in the incidence of death and serious disease. BR also identified the Corporate Average
Fuel Economy standard as a candidate for reform. BR stated this standard ". . . has saved little or
no fuel, but, which, when binding, has come at high direct and indirect costs -- including the
costs associated with increased highway fatalities and injuries associated with the smaller and
lighter vehicles mandated by the standard." BR suggested the use of economic incentives, such
as fuel taxes as a more effective and less costly way to reduce fuel consumption.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered the results of two recent surveys of its members.
Among the observations were the following: (1) The complexity of pension regulations has
effectively prevented a large percentage of firms from offering defined benefit plans; (2) One in
six companies laid off workers to deal with the cost of labor and employee benefits regulations
and one in three avoided hiring new employees; and (3) One in 10 businesses laid off workers to
meet the cost of environmental and natural resource regulations.
The Edison Electric Institute identified EPA's New Source Performance
Standards/Prevention of Significant Deterioration programs under the Clean Air Act and the 316
Program under the Clean Water Act as programs that should be reformed to include a benefit-cost approach in determining compliance options.
The National Apartment Association, National Leased Housing Association, and National
Multi Housing Association joint comments stated that the analysis supporting EPA's lead-based
paint rule was "seriously deficient in many respects." These commenters stated that, given the
significant expenditures involved, EPA needs to make clearer the benefits of the program before
imposing such costs.
Finally, the American Water Works Association stated that the benefits of the drinking
water program are largely attributed to a relatively small handful of contaminants. It
recommended EPA maintain sufficient statutory flexibility in selecting contaminants to regulate
as well as in the form of those regulations.
In summary, we received many helpful comments from a diverse set of interests. We
have much food for thought and much work to do.
The Budget | Legislative Information | Management Reform/GPRA
Financial Management | Procurement Policy | Information & Regulatory Policy
Contact the White House Web Master