SALT LAKE CITY — Government has become like a helicopter parent with its thousands of pages of business regulations that stifle innovation and job creation, Sen. Mike Lee said Thursday.
Furthermore, Lee said, Congress has abandoned its rule-making authority to a faceless federal bureaucracy to avoid taking responsibility for the laws it passes.
"Millions of Americans are out of work. Many are long-term unemployed. Yet today, 1 out of 3 jobs requires a government license — government permission just to work," Lee said.
"And once you do have a job, there are thousands of pages of, 'Don’t do this. Not like that. That’s not approved.'"
Lee and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., were the featured speakers at the first Utah Solutions Summit, a daylong conference where business owners, politicians and civic leaders gathered to talk about reforming the nation's regulatory system. The Salt Lake Chamber, Utah League of Cities and Towns, and Utah Association of Counties sponsored the event.
Government regulation is dulling the American economy's competitive edge, Lee said, adding that business startups have been declining for years.
"The only way for individuals and families with low incomes and low skills to climb the economic ladder is to work more, work harder and acquire new skills," he said. "But government regulation of commerce, labor and education all conspire to pull that economic ladder up out of the reach of the Americans grasping for those bottom rungs."
Two 10-foot-high stacks of paper that make up the 83,000-page 2013 Federal Register stood next to the lectern at the Little America Hotel, while the 800 pages of laws Congress passed last year were piled on a table.
Lee calculated that for every one page of law, federal agencies write 100 pages of rules. Congress gave the executive branch that discretion to insulate its members from political accountability, he said.
Coburn said Congress is "absolutely clueless" when it writes laws "because if they really knew what they were doing, they would write the rules as they went along."
Businesses have to pay thousands of dollars to interpret and comply with regulations that are so detailed that no one can keep or enforce them, he said. That money would better spent on education, housing and creating wealth, Coburn said.
Lee said one of the biggest problems with regulations is that they are rarely applied evenly throughout the economy. They're written in ways that specifically hurt some businesses and help others.
"This is not only unfair; it is corrupting. It incentivizes businesses to invest their money in influence instead of innovation," he said.
Lee said regulatory reform should free the economy of oppressive rules, restore political accountability and provide equal opportunities so success is earned, not earmarked.
One idea he said he favors is the REINS Act, which would require Congress to approve every major rule proposed by the executive branch that has an annual economic impact of $100 million. Another is forcing Congress to vote every year on the amount of regulatory costs each federal agency could impose on the economy.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Washington has shown a "complete inability" to adapt and change, especially when it comes to technology.
Cox pointed to Utah's budding unmanned aerial aircraft industry. The state's four major universities are developing the technology, which he said could be used not for spying but for agriculture and real estate development.
"They're ahead of the curve, and yet legally they can't do anything with it," Cox said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has banned drones pending its release of rules governing their use.
"What we're asking for is let the market work," Cox said. "We could expand an entire industry within minutes, but the regulations say you can't do it."