Most regulations are issued by the executive branch, not Congress. This limits their accountability to elected officials. Bills such as the REINS Act seek to address this by requiring Congress to vote on major new agency regulations (see my 2016 paper on REINS). One objection to REINS is that it would require an additional 40 to 50 congressional votes per year; Congress often has too much on its plate as it is. Herbert A. Simon foresaw that objection several decades ago on p. 65 of the 4th edition (1997) of 1947’s Administrative Behavior (emphasis in original):
Second, the fact that pressure of legislative work forbids the review of more than a few administrative decisions does not destroy the usefulness of sanctions that permit the legislative body to hold the administrator answerable for any of his decisions.
When it comes to government transparency, more is better. As a general principle, the government should make public as many of its documents as possible (a principle CEI is currently litigating for against a number of agencies). Despite transparency shortcomings elsewhere, a bright spot since 1950 has been the Commerce Department’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The NTIS collects a slew of scientific and technical government documents from a variety of agencies, and offers them for sale to the public. But a new bill from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) would eliminate the NTIS altogether.
Why would Senators as outspoken on transparency issues as Coburn and McCaskill favor eliminating an agency that does nothing but increase transparency? Because for some years now, the NTIS has unofficially been part of the federal government’s Department of Redundancy Department. As National Journal notes, “the Government Accountability Office has asked NTIS to stop selling its reports, as that agency posts them on its own site for free.”
Coburn and McCaskill’s bill, the Let Me Google That For You Act, makes that point in its very name. The NTIS doesn’t just charge people for documents that can be found for free with a simple Google search. It also has a staff of 150 and a $66 million budget, which modern technology has rendered completely wasteful.
Transparency is a crucial part of good governance, and for a long time the NTIS played an important role. But times have changed, and its services are now being performed for free by other means. It’s time for the NTIS to close up shop.
For bonus fun, you watch Coburn and McCaskill grill NTIS Director Bruce Borzino in a recent hearing.