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During the town hall presidential debate, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of strangling small businesses with too much regulation.
That's been a popular theme with Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who have complained about a "tsunami" of new regulations under Obama since 2010.
Asked by one of the town hall participants about outsourcing, Romney gave his prescription for keeping jobs in the United States. First he spoke about the corporate tax rate, which he believes is too high and prevents job creation. Then he turned to regulations.
"Regulations have quadrupled," Romney said. "The rate of regulations quadrupled under this president."
We decided to check Romney’s numbers and see if he was right.
Romney’s quadruple regulation claim
The Romney campaign told us the basis for the statement was research by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. An ongoing study by Heritage documents regulation activity by the federal government. Its latest update said President George W. Bush’s administration adopted 28 "major regulations" that increased burdens on the private sector in its first three years, compared with 106 by the Obama administration.
But viewers of the debate didn’t hear the caveats that should have been attached to Romney’s statement. First, he was referring only to "economically significant" regulations, which are those with a cost estimate of $100 million or higher. Second, the Heritage report doesn’t account for all regulations. It only looks at regulations that Heritage researchers said would "limit activity or mandate activity by the private sector."
James Gattuso, an author of the Heritage report, said Romney’s use of the phrase "rate of regulations" seemed to be an effort to distinguish between all regulations and new regulations approved under a president. "Rate" implies a time frame. Heritage made comparisons about regulations over a three-year period.
But we find Romney was not clear about which time frame he was using during the debate.
Other data contradict Romney
Since Heritage looked narrowly at high-cost regulations that it judged to be harmful to businesses, we sought other research about regulations and found little to support Romney's claim.
The annual number of regulations approved under the Obama administration is about the same as other administrations in the past 18 years, according to OMB Watch, a left-leaning group that advocates for transparency in the Office of Management and Budget, better known as the OMB.
In a September report titled "The regulatory tsunami that wasn’t," the group used records from the OMB to evaluate charges that the Obama administration was imposing more regulations than other recent presidents.
In fact, the most up-to-date figures show about 8.5 percent fewer regulations in Obama’s first 46 months than in the same time frame for Bush. That tally comes from the Office of Management and Budget.
The chart below comes from the OMB Watch report, comparing regulations and economically significant regulations under presidents Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama.
"The story is much more of continuity than radical change," said Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law.
Since 1994 the number of regulations approved per year has ranged from 228 to 371, the group found.
Between 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration approved an average of 297 regulations per year, comparable to yearly figures for the past 18 years. (In 1992 and 1993, the numbers were much higher, exceeding 1,000 regulations both years.)
Even among the economically significant regulations, Obama is nowhere near quadrupling them: For the first three years of the Obama and Bush administrations, Obama is about 24 percent higher.
(The numbers on the OMB Watch chart differ from Heritage because the conservative group only looked at economically significant regulations that it deemed to be harmful to the private sector, a subset of the total number. Also, Heritage relied on records from the Government Accountability Office, which includes regulations from independent agencies in addition to those in the executive branch.)
Although Republicans have criticized Obama for over regulation of business, his former "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein received widespread criticism for not enforcing several high-profile rules, such as a tighter ozone pollution standard and rules on coal ash disposal. In a May editorial, The New York Times called the attacks about too much regulation "absurd" because "the administration has a mediocre record when it comes to curbing dangerous practices by industry."
Romney said that regulations and the rate of regulations quadrupled under Obama. He was basing that on the Heritage study, but he did not include important caveats about how the study was conducted.
And more importantly, the actual data on regulations show Obama's rate of regulations is no different from the past 18 years.
This is a broad claim describing its own evidence inaccurately. False.
UPDATE: We've updated this item with a fuller description of OMB Watch.
Interview with Moira Mack, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with Robert Cramer, managing associate general counsel at GAO, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch, Oct. 17, 2012
Interview with James Gattuso, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, Oct. 17, 2012
Email interview with Kara Carscaden, spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, Oct. 17, 2012
Email interview with Robert Terra, spokesman for the Romney campaign, Oct. 17, 2012
Email interview with Lester Salamon, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University and former deputy associate director for the Office of Management and Budget, Oct. 17, 2012
The New York Times, Powerful Shaper of U.S. Rules Quits, With Critics in Wake, Aug. 3, 2012
OMB Watch, The regulatory tsunami that wasn’t, September 2012
The Heritage Foundation, Red tape rising: Obama-era regulation at the three-year mark, March 13, 2012
The New York Times, Editorial: The phony regulation debate, May 26, 2012
Bloomberg News, Obama wrote 5 percent fewer rules than Bush while costing business, Oct. 25, 2011
The Huffington Post, Romney-Obama Debate: Romney Wrongly Claims Regulation Has Increased Under Obama, Oct. 16, 2012
FactCheck.org, Obama’s Economic Sleight of Hand, June 15, 2012
Office of Management and Budget, Draft 2012 report to Congress on the benefits and costs of federal regulations and unfunded mandates on state, local and tribal entities, March 2012
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Addressing the challenges of a nation at risk: address by Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Nov. 17, 2010
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