The way government should be

The way government should be

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

“And so my instructions to the federal agency has been, do not figure out why we can’t do something; I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There’s no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they need — where they’re needed as quickly as possible. So I want to repeat — my message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape.”

— Barack Obama, Oct. 30, 2012

In the days after Hurricane Sandy, President Obama got it right when he ordered the federal government to be a help, not a hindrance. The way he instructed his administration to do that was to kill regulations and cut bureaucracy that normally make the federal government slow, inefficient and sometimes unresponsive. But why did it take four years and a massively destructive storm for Obama to advocate what the government should actually look like all the time?

This column was written before the election but is appearing afterward, so I have no idea whether the incumbent or the challenger won. Good thing the point I’m making is the same regardless of Tuesday’s result. Washington is overly involved in regulating our daily lives when there isn’t a crisis and as Obama noted, it isn’t a good fit for disaster relief because of all those burdensome regulations either.

Take fuel for example. There is something called the Jones Act, which was originally passed by Congress in 1920 and covers rules for shipping goods from one American port to another. The Jones Act mandates that only U.S.-built, U.S.-owned or U.S.-operated maritime vessels are allowed to ship goods from two points within the United States. After Sandy, the Jones Act meant that oil and gas that could be delivered to New York to alleviate severe fuel shortages, wasn’t getting anywhere near the afflicted area. So the Obama administration waived the rules.

“The administration’s highest priority is ensuring the health and safety of those impacted by Hurricane Sandy and this waiver will remove a potential obstacle to bringing additional fuel to the storm damaged region,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. But if it makes sense to open up maritime delivery of goods to the port of New York because of a storm, why doesn’t it make sense to open up this kind of commerce all year round?

Such irrational, anachronistic rules exist at the state level as well. Here’s an example that’s a bit closer to home. “The cost of full-time child care averages more than $7,000 per child,” explains Duquesne University economics professor Antony Davies. “States that impose more regulations, on average, have higher child care costs. By comparison, one year of tuition and fees at the average in-state rate at a four-year public university is $6,900.”

Pennsylvania, for its part, is proud of how regulations drive up the price of day care. As Diane Barber, the director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association told a local Pittsburgh reporter, there’s a good reason why it costs Pennsylvania families just under $10,000 on average for state-licensed and regulated full-time day care, “It costs more to do quality,” she explained. Is it really necessary to drive the price up so high that some parents may not be able to afford state licensed and approved day care? And do you know what some of those regulations include? Pennsylvania regulations now mandate four sippy cups per day per child and throwing out perfectly good, uneaten food, all in the name of an unattainable and unrealistic goal of perfect hygiene and perfect safety.

Mitt Romney agrees with President Obama that burdensome regulations, whether federal or state, should be eased. Moreover, Romney campaigned for the presidency with the message that, in general, government rules should be less intrusive, less pervasive and less costly, so that businesses and the overall economy can get moving again.

Last week, both candidates were singing the same tune: burdensome and ineffective rules and bureaucracy should be eased or erased. Whoever won this week will hopefully maintain that position going forward and restore some sanity to our lives and our expectations.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based political columnist. Follow her on Twitter/abbyschachter or email her at