When you groggily roll out of bed and make breakfast, the government edges up to your kitchen table, too. Unlike you, it’s perky.
It’s an unseen force in your morning. The government makes sure you can see the nutrients in your cereal. It fusses over your toast, insisting that the flour it comes from has no more than 75 insect fragments and one rodent hair per 50 grams.
The government also tends to your coffee, mandating that no more than 10% of your beans be moldy. Its satellites inform the weather forecast on your phone for the day ahead. The government weighs in on the water consumption in your bathroom and controls the fluoride in your toothpaste.
That’s all before you leave home. The government is going to be hanging with you on and off, mostly on, until you turn off the lamp last thing at night — no new incandescent bulbs, please, under a new rule.
The world of federal regulation seems both boundless and microscopic. It touches what you touch. It lends a helping hand at every turn or sticks its clumsy fingers in everything, depending on your viewpoint.
But a Supreme Court ruling this past week, limiting federal authority to control carbon emissions from power plants, was just the latest blow to what critics call the regulatory state and potentially a major blow to the fight against global warming.
In its farthest reach, regulation has become the go-to way for presidents to make policy when they can’t get Congress to pass a law, as on climate change. Barack Obama and Donald Trump did it for varied policies; Joe Biden does it. The court’s conservative majority said not so fast to Biden.
The decision imperils Biden’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of the decade even as the damage from global warming mounts. Beyond that, it may hinder regulation across a range of public policy, in education, transportation, LGBTQ rights and more.
Congress, the court said, must speak with specificity when it wants to give an agency authority to regulate on an issue of national import.
Browse the Code of Federal Regulations and you will see just how specific rule-making can be. The voluminous code’s favorite words are “shall” and “must.”
Take sea otters, for example. If you’ve ever wondered how to measure a sea otter, the code has the answer.
The pool of water for sea otters in captivity, it stipulates, “shall be at least three times the average adult length of the sea otter contained therein (measured in a horizontal line from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail) and the pool shall be not less than .91 meters (3.0 feet) deep.”
Even as they’ve expanded government with landmark laws and the explosion of regulations that arise from them, U.S. presidents have tried since the start to simplify government. As vice president, Al Gore took a run at “reinventing” it. Such efforts generally haven’t gone well.
Thomas Jefferson sought freedom from bureaucracy as well as the achievement of American liberty when he wrote of the British king, “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
What followed were several centuries of new offices and swarm upon swarm of bureaucrats come hither.
Associated Press writer Saul Pett took stock of the government in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was trying to rein it in. Pett won a Pulitzer Prize for getting his hands around the behemoth. He described the government as:
“A big, bumbling, generous, naive, inquisitive, acquisitive, intrusive, meddlesome giant with a heart of gold and holes in his pockets, an incredible hulk, a ‘10-ton marshmallow’ lumbering along an uncertain road of good intentions somewhere between capitalism and socialism, an implausible giant who fights wars, sends men to the moon, explores the ends of the universe, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, helps the helpless, a thumping complex of guilt trying mightily to make up for past sins to the satisfaction of nobody, a split personality who most of his life thought God helps those who help themselves and only recently concluded God needed help, a malleable, vulnerable colossus pulled every which way by everybody who wants a piece of him, which is everybody.”
At the time, the U.S. government owned 413,042 buildings, excluding military facilities abroad, and employed 2.8 million civilians and 2.1 million military personnel. The expansion of federal programs especially swelled ranks in state and local government.
In 2021, a year of pandemic-dampened employment, the civilian federal civil service was about the same size as in 1981 while 600,000 or so fewer were in uniform.
For all of that, citizen encounters with the federal government often play out in the background, unacknowledged. The days are long gone when anyone could stroll at will through the front doors of Washington’s grand government buildings and do business.
It shapes their lives, nonetheless. That smartphone GPS came from the government. So did the internet.
People stroll on sidewalks built to requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Text messages and apps run off nearby cellphone towers that the Federal Communications Commission registers and licenses.
But it’s more visible when the government takes instead of gives. Motorists steer 18.4 cents to Washington for each gallon of gas they buy and 24.4 cents for each gallon of diesel. Most states grab an even bigger take per gallon.
Much of that money goes to make the roads you drive on better. A sliver of it per gallon goes to LUST — the fund to fix leaking underground storage tanks. And there are federal auto rules galore.
The rules dictate how far you should be able to go on a gallon of gas — about 28 miles or 45 kilometers this year. The feds have standards on air bags and child car seats. Rules in the works would let you know if people in the back seat haven’t buckled up and remind you to look in the back seat when you turn off the car to make sure you haven’t left a child there.
At work, federal rules stand ready to step in if you are a victim of unlawful discrimination or hazardous working conditions. After work, food at the dinner table made it there through a regimen of meat, factory and farm inspection and truth-in-labelling rules.
That pizza sauce? Relax and enjoy. It can only have 30 fly eggs in each cup, by federal mandate. Except when a maggot is present; then only 15 fly eggs are permitted.
When you tuck your children in, the feds are there for the nighty-night, too.
If the young ones are old enough to get around and in trouble — nine months — they go off to sleep in the only bedtime garments that can be sold for them — body-hugging nightwear or flame-retardant pajamas.
Says a government order: That must and shall be so.
Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz, Kevin Freking and Seth Borenstein in Washington and AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this repor
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