It would take an ordinary person more than two and a half years to read the entire US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which currently contains more than 103 million words. The sheer size of the CFR poses a problem not just for the individuals and businesses that want to stay in compliance with the law, but also for anyone interested in understanding the consequences of this massive system of rules. States also have sizable regulatory codes, which add an additional layer to the enormous body of federal regulation. A prime example is the online version of the 2017 Code of Colorado Regulations (CCR).
A tool known as State RegData—a platform for analyzing and quantifying state regulatory text—was developed by researchers at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. State RegData captures information in minutes that would take an ordinary person hours, weeks, or even years to obtain. For example, the tool allows researchers to identify the industries that state regulation targets most by connecting text relevant to those industries with restrictive word counts. Known as regulatory restrictions, the words and phrases shall, must, may not, prohibited, and required can signify legal constraints and obligations. As shown in figure 1, the three industries with the highest estimates of industry-relevant restrictions in the 2017 CCR are ambulatory health care services, chemical manufacturing, and utilities.
State RegData also reveals that the CCR contains 151,860 regulatory restrictions and roughly 11.5 million words. It would take an individual 640 hours—or about 16 weeks—to read the entire CCR. That’s assuming the reader spends 40 hours per week reading and reads at a rate of 300 words per minute. For comparison, in 2017 there are slightly more than one million additional restrictions in the federal code. Individuals and businesses in Colorado must navigate these different layers of restrictions to remain in compliance.
Rules in the CCR are organized by regulatory department, board, or commission. Figure 2 shows that the Department of Public Health and Environment oversees more than 40,000 restrictions. By this measure, this is the biggest regulator in Colorado. Coming in second is the Department of Regulatory Agencies—which includes many of the state’s occupational licensing boards—with more than 27,000 restrictions. These two departments combined are responsible for about 45 percent of all the restrictions in Colorado.
Federal regulation tends to attract the most headlines, but it is important to remember that the more than 103 million words and one million restrictions in the federal code significantly understate the true scope of regulation in the United States. States like Colorado write millions of additional words of regulation and hundreds of thousands of additional restrictions. State-level requirements carry the force of law to restrict individuals and businesses just as federal ones do.
Researchers are only beginning to understand the consequences of the massive and growing federal regulatory system on economic growth and well-being in the United States. Meanwhile, the effects of state regulation remain largely unknown. If this snapshot of Colorado regulation in 2017 is a good indicator, then the states are also active regulators, suggesting the true impact of regulation on society is far greater than that of federal regulation alone.