Regulators' delays in fleshing out the rules that accompany legislation can generate uncertainty, frustration and a sense that government is not working. For those who are potentially affected by those rules the delays can have significant consequences. To combat regulatory delay and the uncertainty that accompanies it, Congress sometimes imposes deadlines on agency rulemaking, and federal agencies often set target dates in order to publicize when they expect to issue regulations.
A new study by Stéphane Lavertu (The Ohio State University) and Susan Webb Yackee (University of Wisconsin—Madison) suggests that congressional deadlines may in fact lead agencies to set overly optimistic target dates—that is, congressional deadlines may contribute to delay by decreasing the likelihood that agencies will finalize regulations when they initially anticipate.
“Surprisingly, we find agencies are less likely to meet publicized target dates when the proposed regulations are associated with congressional deadlines,” said Lavertu, an assistant professor at Ohio State’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs.
“It may be that lawmakers who impose unrealistic statutory deadlines lead agencies to set unrealistic target dates for regulatory decision-making,” said Lavertu. “Efforts to combat delay ironically might contribute to the perception that government is plagued by delay,” he said.
Lavertu and Yackee are the first to examine how well all federal agencies meet publicized target dates. They examined all regulations proposed by federal agencies over a ten-year period (through 2006) to estimate how deadlines imposed by Congress affect the timing of regulatory decisions.
According to existing research, congressional deadlines shorten the time it takes federal agencies to issue regulations. And, consistent with existing research, Lavertu and Yackee find agencies are more likely to ultimately finalize proposed regulations if Congress has imposed a deadline.
However, their analysis suggests the benefits of deadlines may be overshadowed by their link to missed target dates, which may contribute to the public’s perception that agencies’ regulatory decision-making is plagued by delay.
“Agencies finalize proposed rules by their initial target dates only 15 percent of the time if there is no congressional deadline,” said Lavertu. “But they are even more likely to delay regulations when there is a deadline. Federal agencies meet target dates only 8 percent of the time when there is a statutory deadline for rule finalization.”
Similarly, proposed regulations not associated with deadlines are delayed by 272 days, on average, whereas those associated with deadlines are delayed 392 days, on average. These differences are similar even when controlling for other factors that contribute to delay.
“This is yet another potential consequence that lawmakers should keep in mind when they intervene in the regulatory process,” said Lavertu.