Journalism in the Public Interest


MuckReads Podcast: Inside Washington Rule-Making, AKA ‘The Seventh Circle of Bureaucratic Hell’


(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The cover story in the current issue of the Washington Monthly delves into what sounds like a dull subject — the federal "rule-making" process — and manages to make it exciting. The reporter, Haley Sweetland Edwards, investigates how powerful interests like the financial industry can exert influence over government bureaucrats who write a bill's rules and regulations after it's signed into law.

I called Edwards last week to ask her about the story, including how she became interested in the obscure world of rule-making. She said she realized its importance while talking with a government source off the record:

"He said, 'You know, a law doesn't mean anything until it's written into rules. It's just words on paper.' And suddenly it clicked for me — that we pass these enormous pieces of legislation, and all of us pay such close attention to these laws as they're making their way through the partisan battles and the two houses of Congress .... But then they're laws. They're stamped into the federal code and they don't mean anything until they're written into rules. And then I just became fascinated, because I realized that so many of these rules coming out of [the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act] in particular, but out of so many laws, just get weakened enormously. Laws that we thought we had essentially don't exist. They may be on the books, but they don't change your life or mine."

Sad but true, corporations, lobbyist and special interest get many shots at shaping the laws of the land.  I wonder how many laws we think are on the books but have been so modified in the rule making process that most of us would not recognize them?  If the rule making process doesn’t make the laws palatable to powers that be, remember they never go home, they are back to fight another day, another year, another election cycle They will get their way in time.

This has gone on forever, can’t we do anything about it? Or is the money of the lobbyists my opposite equal, and then some?

They count in there being too many rule processes to keep track of. How can we crowd-source this? Wiki Rules Watchdog? Everyone pick an agency…

The deeply concerning thing about this is that the law doesn’t contain the rules.

So, we have a Congress that sponsors enormously-written bills at the last minute, so nobody has time to read them, and even if they did, they’re not voting on the implementation of the bill.

It seems like, of all the times people suggest a Constitutional Amendment, one of them really should be “all bills must be concrete in implementation and no more than one page long to pass.”

Our Founders expected high-quality,public-minded Citizens to aspire to roles in representative government, needing little but guidelines in proper governance.  The current crop of mostly vain, self-centered, corrupt individuals easily circumvent the low fences guarding our Public Good.

It’s arguable that, in a smaller country where fewer and far less complex government functions were managed more locally, the founders (to the extent they agreed on much, among themselves) foresaw much more engagement on the part of citizens (or among the small group they considered to be citizens who mattered).

Most rules processes occur outside the representative bodies, enacted by non-political players with the specific expertise needed to do so. For the most part, this is done honestly and competently: some procedure assures that the monthly retirement checks get cut, and that the bulbs get replaced in the street lamps.

Even the most honestly and competently implemented processes, though, benefit from oversight—especially knowledgeable oversight attuned to legal intent and citizen rights and needs.

The benefit of oversight is even greater when processes are corrupted via changes to laws, or via rules and procedures that are inconsistent with the intent of laws.

So how do you and I become more effective watchdogs, and become more supportive of other watchdogs? We can’t catch everything, but we can make sure that people know they are being watched. Those on the up and up will appreciate the help.


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