Shutdown Shrinks Federal Register. Does it Matter?
One of the more measurable impacts of the government shutdown is the starkly reduced number of pages in the journal of the U.S. government known as the Federal Register.
A website tally since the appropriations lapse on Oct. 1 shows that the number of Federal Register pages, rules, notices and documents stayed normal until Oct. 4, at which time the page count shrunk from 649 to 133. With the pipeline apparently diminished, the unusually low count fluctuated during Oct. 7 through Oct. 10 from 12 to 33 to 6 to 15, those last displayed without the routine labels of presidential documents and “significant documents.”
The Office of the Federal Register in its website shutdown alert notes that while the website is not being updated, the office “is publishing documents in the daily Federal Register that are directly related to the performance of governmental functions necessary to address imminent threats to the safety of human life or protection of property.” These documents are viewable on the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System at FDSys.
The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal celebrated the thinner Federal Register, noting with sarcasm that “our glorious Republic still stands.” After ridiculing some recent proposed rules on health from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and endangered species from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Journal speculated that “maybe the shutdown is helping the economy.”
More worried is Joel A. Mintz, a law professor and member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform, who said both the cut-offs in publishing and the lowered number of rules and notices are “a direct result of furloughs” both at the Federal Register and at agencies where regulations get written. “We can’t ignore the fact that government safeguards are also closed down,” he said.
He cited two recent examples where the absence of federal enforcement or inspection personnel has caused tangible harm. One is the recent outbreak of salmonella from contaminated chicken in 18 states that caused 278 people to take ill, which he said can be linked to furloughs at the Centers for Disease Control and a resulting inability to effectively track the outbreak.
The second is the recent deaths of three workers at mines in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming that the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is tasked with inspecting. “I can’t help but think if federal agency employees had been on the job, there’s at least a realistic possibility that these people might have been saved,” Mintz said.
Katie Weatherford, a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, said, “The number of pages is not important, it’s more the content of the standards and safeguards and how agencies protect people’s health and the environment.” It’s hard to say a delay in publication of a rule has a serious impact, she added, “but there is serious impact when the rules themselves are delayed,” particularly those rules that are “ready to go.”