It would take an ordinary person almost three years to read the entire US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which contained over 103 million words in 2012. 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 2017 version of the Oregon Administrative Rules.
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. For example, the tool allows researchers to identify the industries most targeted by regulation by connecting keywords relevant to those industries with restrictive word counts (known as regulatory restrictions). These are words and phrases like “shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required” that can signify legal constraints and obligations. As shown in figure 1, the top three industries with the highest estimates of industry-relevant restrictions in the 2017 Oregon Administrative Rules are ambulatory healthcare services, chemical manufacturing, and nursing and residential care facilities.
State RegData also reveals that the Oregon Administrative Rules contains 167,401 restrictions and roughly 14.8 million words. It would take an individual about 821 hours—or almost 21 weeks—to read the entire Oregon code. That’s assuming the reader spends 40 hours per week reading and reads at a rate of 300 words per minute. For comparison, in 2016 there were over 1.08 million additional restrictions in the federal code. Individuals and businesses in Oregon must navigate all of these restrictions to remain in compliance.
The chapters of the Oregon Administrative Rules are assigned based on the agency whose rules are contained within those chapters. There are 168 agencies with chapters in the Oregon code. Figure 2 shows that in 2017, rules from the Oregon Health Authority, Public Health Division, which are found in chapter 333, contained over 15,000 restrictions. This makes it the biggest regulator in Oregon. Coming in second is the Department of Environmental Quality, whose chapter of the code includes over 11,000 restrictions.
Federal regulation tends to attract the most headlines, but it is important to remember that the 100 million words and over 1 million restrictions in the federal code are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true scope of regulation in the United States. States like Oregon 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 other measures of well-being in the United States. Meanwhile, the effects of state regulation remain largely unknown. If this snapshot of Oregon 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.