It would take an ordinary person almost three years to read the entire US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which contained nearly 104 million words in 2017. 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 large body of federal regulation. A prime example is the online version of the 2019 North Dakota Administrative Code (NDAC).
Researchers at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University developed State RegData, a platform for analyzing and quantifying state regulatory text. State RegData captures information in minutes that would take hours, weeks, or even years to obtain by reading and counting. 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. These regulatory restrictions are instances of the words and phrases shall, must, may not, prohibited, and required, and they can signify legal constraints and obligations. As shown in figure 1, the three industries with the highest estimates of industry-relevant restrictions in the 2019 NDAC are petroleum and coal products manufacturing; chemical manufacturing; and waste management and remediation services.
State RegData also reveals that the 2019 NDAC contains 63,203 restrictions and 4.6 million words. It would take an individual 254 hours—or more than 6 weeks—to read the entire NDAC. That’s assuming the reader spends 40 hours per week reading and reads at a rate of 300 words per minute. By comparison, there are 1.09 million additional restrictions in the federal code. Individuals and businesses in North Dakota must navigate these different layers of restrictions to remain in compliance.
The titles of the NDAC are organized by the department, board, or commission that oversees particular rules. Figure 2 shows that the title of the code associated with the Department of Health contains 15,775 restrictions. By this measure, the Department of Health is the biggest regulator in North Dakota. Coming in second is the Department of Environmental Quality with 11,278 restrictions.
Federal regulation tends to attract the most headlines, but it is important to remember that the nearly 104 million words and 1.09 million restrictions in the federal code significantly understate the true scope of regulation in the United States. States like North Dakota write millions of additional words of regulation and tens 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 North Dakota regulation in 2019 is a good indicator, then the states are also active regulators, suggesting that the full impact of regulation on society is far greater than that of federal regulation alone.
The author would like to thank Vince Miozzi for helpful research and programming assistance that contributed to this report.