Red Tape Remedies Are All Bark

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama promised to streamline government, reorganize agencies and eliminate unnecessary rules to get bureaucracy out of the way of economic growth.

The challenge of that lofty goal is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the case of the National Park Service and its attempt to establish rules for dog-walking at San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

Two weeks ago, the park service released a draft environmental impact statement on proposed new rules for dog walkers. The report, years in the making, is 2,400 pages long.

Obama on Tuesday night mocked the sometimes overlapping regulatory regimes of federal agencies and said, “In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America.” 

He also made note of his own recent executive order on regulatory review, saying: “I’ve ordered a review of government regulations. When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them.”

Both were straightforward commitments, but experts in government regulation warn that it’s not nearly so easy as it sounds. Even when the underlying issue is absurdly simple, government regulation is a complex process because of overlapping laws, court mandates and decades of regulatory history, and it may be hard to quickly turn around.

The dog-walking rule is an entertaining example.

According to the park service proposal, the rule grows out of a years-long dispute about off-leash dog-walking in the national parks along the San Francisco shore. The parks were originally run by state and local entities, becoming part of the National Park System in the late 1970s. But when the National Park Service took over the beachfront lands, it agreed not to enforce the rule that applies in all other national parks: no off-leash dog-walking. Instead, the park service established guidelines based on historical use of the areas, allowing off-leash dogs in some areas.

But over time, conflicts arose between dogs and protected species in the recreation area, such as the California red-legged frog, as well as between dog people and non-dog people. A court finally ordered the park service to write rules governing dog-walking in the recreation area. That was nearly six years ago.

The park service attempted to bring the various interested parties together to hammer out a deal on new rules, but after 18 months, no consensus was reached and the effort was scrapped, said Howard Levitt, communications director for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

So the park service had to write a rule, governed by laws that require a whole series of specific steps designed to promote transparency and fairness, including public comment periods and environmental impact statements.

Levitt said the park service has taken some ribbing for releasing a 2,400-page document, but he notes that the rules govern 21 different areas of the park, with five separate alternatives considered for each area. 

“If you are going to do a thorough analysis of these areas, it requires a whole lot of work and depth,” Levitt said. “If you are going to be open and transparent about that, which is what the policy requires, it is going to add up to a lot of heft.”

Levitt said the agency hopes to be able to issue a final rule in about two years.

Bob Irvin of Defenders of Wildlife said:“It’s never easy to reorganize government or streamline rules. It doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy goal to pursue, but the reality is that a lot of government regulation occurs for reasons that Americans really care about.”

Irvin points out that people want both clean water and a fair process for regulating water quality. Irvin said that “while it is frustrating that all of this seems so cumbersome,” the regulatory process “is a way of protecting us all, because otherwise every time we have an election and the political winds shift, rights and responsibilities could change dramatically.”

An industry attorney who has spent years working on regulatory matters noted that every administration since at least President Jimmy Carter has launched some kind of regulatory reform effort, but none has made much long-term difference.

“If it were easy to fix, it would have been done a long time ago,” the source said. 

This attorney suggested that rather than a sweeping restructuring of federal agencies, some narrower technical changes could dramatically improve the regulatory climate for business, such as creating an independent body akin to the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate the costs and benefits of regulatory proposals.

Whatever Obama is considering for restructuring or reform of agencies, the White House apparently has not shared any ideas with Congress yet — which would ultimately have to approve any reorganization. Industry and public interest lobbyists said they had not been consulted before the State of the Union address, and the White House offered no details Wednesday.

Asked for more details of how the plan will be crafted or by when, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an e-mail: “In the coming weeks, the Administration will begin the process of putting a plan together for Congress to consider. We need to go through the federal government and identify where we can merge, consolidate, and cut. Specifically, as the President said, he is approaching this through the lens of what ‘best serves the goal of a more competitive America.’”