How Many People Does It Take to Write a Rule?

Management consultants seeking fertile new business territory need look no further than the nation's capital. As the accompanying chart illustrates, buck-passing, confusing, and duplicative decisionmaking processes are thriving, despite talk of "reinventing government" and the president's assertion that "the era of big government is over."

The flow chart, compiled by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution from Department of Education rules, illustrates how the department promulgates its rules for discretionary grant programs. Procedures recently have been adopted with input from the department's principal offices and are detailed in an 18-page document describing more than 70 specific actions that need to be reviewed and acted on accordingly.

As if that weren't enough

Adding to the general confusion, the Department of Education has a separate list of 217 specific actions that must be taken pertaining to the actual administration of these grants. One positive note: The number is down from 487 two years ago. Outside the realm of discretionary grants, a separate but equally lengthy set of procedures also has to be followed for the promulgation of other regulations.

What are some of the results of these processes? On March 13, the department proudly issued its "final policy guidance" on sexual harassment, a 52-page, single-spaced document. Assuming for a moment that federal bureaucratic decrees will somehow actually deter swinish behavior in schools - and therefore this document has a meaningful purpose - we can all rest assured from such pronouncements as "A high school athletic coach hugging a student who made a goal or a kindergarten teacher's consoling hug for a child with a skinned knee will not be considered sexual harassment."

The array of internal complexities that the Department of Education has to follow on rulemaking raises several questions. These include:

How much, in staff time and other resources, does the rulemaking process annually cost taxpayers? How much time and money was spent in developing the new discretionary grant process and other regulatory procedures? Should the department - for financial reasons or to avoid internal political problems - retain an outside consultant to help streamline its rulemaking practices? What actions does the Department of Education suggest that Congress take to help make this process more sensible?

Congress, take note

Members of Congress might want to analyze these matters, which are particularly important in light of President Clinton's proposals to increase the Department of Education's budget by $10 billion - 34 percent - in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Department of Education, of course, is only one of many rulemaking organizations in Washington.

In fact, education is just one of 50 topics in the Code of Federal Regulations.

* Paul F. Steidler is a senior fellow with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy research group in Arlington, Va.

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