Learn About Regulations

What are regulations?

Our elected representatives in Congress make laws by which we all must abide. For example, when Congress changes the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, that’s that. Sometimes, however, Congress isn’t so explicit. Instead it delegates the power to make rules to a regulatory agency.

For example, instead of passing laws that set out emission standards, Congress passes the Clean Air Act. This law simply tells the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that the air is clean, and it gives the agency the power to make regulations to achieve that goal.

As a result, the regulations that the agency issues—defining how much of a particular chemical a power plant can emit, for example—have the power of law just as if Congress itself had made the rules. In this way, regulations are essentially laws with which we all must comply, made by independent commissions or agencies in the executive branch.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of regulations: social and economic. Social regulations deal with health, safety and the environment. They also tend to apply across industries. For example, OSHA regulations that define what constitutes a safe workplace are a type social regulation that apply to all businesses.

Economic rules, on the other hand, tend to be industry-specific and regulate using economic controls such as price and entry restrictions. For example, a regulation from the Federal Reserve that limits how much you can be charged for certain credit card fees would be an economic regulation.

Why do regulations matter?

Regulations affect almost every single part of your life.

The mattress you sleep on has labels regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Food and Drug Administration regulates the contents of your toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant. The price you pay for coffee and orange juice is affected by Commodity Futures Trading Commission rules. Almost every aspect of your car’s design is influenced by theNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What you can listen to on the radio is ordained by the Federal Communications Commission. And that’s just before 9 a.m.

These myriad rules all have costs and benefits. On the one hand, federal rules about anti-lock breaks might make cars safer. On the other hand, they also might make cars more expensive. As a result, how agencies choose to regulate can not only ensure certain safety, environmental, and other benefits, but can also affect what choices are available to you in the market, as well as the cost of goods and services.

Additionally, regulations come from expert agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, and the the folks who make the rules at these agencies are not elected. One way they are held accountable to the people is that they must take and consider comments from the public on proposed new regulations. So, if you want to have some say over how you, your community, or your business is regulated, you should stay abreast of proposed regulation in the areas that matter to you and participate in the regulatory process.

How are regulations made?

What follows is a simplified explanation of how agencies make regulations and how you can participate. If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of the process, check out “The Federal Rulemaking Process: An Overview,” a CRS Report by Curtis W. Copeland.

When an agency wants to issue a new regulation, it must first publish a notice in the Federal Register that explains what it intends to do. This is called a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), and you can find these on this site. When an NPRM is published, this opens a comment period, usually lasting 60 days, during which citizens can write to the agency with comments related to the regulation. After the comment period ends, agencies will often allow for a reply comment period, usually lasting 30 days, during which citizens can respond to comments about the regulation filed by other citizens.

Once the agency has received all these comments from the public, it must by law consider these comments as it proceeds formulating a regulation. At this point the agency might choose not to regulate after all and the process stops. Alternatively, the agency might decide to regulate in a different manner than it first proposed, and this is sometimes as a result of the public comments it received. It might then issue a further notice of proposed rulemaking for its modified proposal and initiate another round of comment and reply comment periods. The agency could repeat this process several times until it is satisfied.

When the agency has formulated the ultimate regulation, it publishes the final rule in the Federal Register. Final rules become effective—and therefore binding—usually 30 days after they are published. These final rules can also be found on this site.

How do I write and file a comment?

Writing a comment to an agency can be as simple as a one-page letter, to a comprehensive study with original research. It’s up to you. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you write your comment:

  • In their notice proposing a rule, agencies often request comments on specific issue, and sometime ask specific questions. Answer these. Although you may have lots to say about a regulation, you will be most effective addressing the issue the agency has singled out. When an agency asks a question, it wants help finding the right answer.
  • Comments to agencies are not like letters to your representatives. Simply registering your agreement or displeasure with a proposed regulation will make little difference. Agencies must be persuaded with reasoned arguments. Additionally, the most useful thing you can do is provide the agency with information it does not have. Making the agency aware of data or anecdotes that support your position is what agencies want.
  • It bears repeating that it is not enough to tell an agency that they should or shouldn’t be regulating in a particular area. In many cases Congress has mandated that the agency must regulate and it is now only looking at how it will do so. In these cases it might not be worthwhile to suggest that they don’t regulate. Instead, suggest the best possible course of action.
  • Offer the agency a range of alternatives. While you will want to highlight your preferred solution, you’ll also want to analyze other possibilities.

The ABA offers a great guide to comment writing that you might want to read. Another good idea is to learn from the pros. Check out these comments from folks who are experienced comment writers:

  • Comments filed in response to a 2007 Federal Communications Commission notice of inquiry about network neutrality from AT&T and Free Press.
  • Comments filed in response to a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulation about greenhouse gas emissions from the American Petroleum Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Filing a comment is easy. Find the page for your regulation on this site, then click on the “File a comment with the agency now” link. This will take you to a page with instructions and then to the official Regulations.gov site where you can submit your comment. That said, you might want to find out if the agency to which your writing has a preference about how it likes to receive comments. Some prefer to have comments submitted to them through their own websites. Others might prefer mail. It’s a good idea to accommodate the agency.