Rethinking Regulation

By K. Sabeel Rahman |

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A more inclusive economy depends on an inclusive political process. Regulatory agencies are central institutions in economic policymaking, yet regulators remain vulnerable to undue political influence from established business and industry interests. How then can we reinvent regulation to be more accountable and responsive to the public at large? This white paper provides a progressive framework for addressing the problem of regulatory reform. The paper argues that instead of seeking to undo regulations or further insulate regulators, we must instead pursue reforms that expand participation and representation for a more inclusive set of stakeholders within the regulatory process itself.

The paper begins with a brief history of different attempts at reforms to ensure regulation serves the public interest, from the New Deal’s faith in expertise to the rise of procedural statutory requirements for regulation to the attempts by both left and right to respond to the charges of capture in the later 20th century. The paper then highlights two particular episodes of democratizing reform efforts: the War on Poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recent innovations in participatory governance in the U.S. and internationally. These episodes suggest some ways in which governance can harness democratic participation and representation to improve accountability and responsiveness.

The paper then offers specific policy recommendations for reinventing progressive regulation by incorporating these democratizing strategies. In particular, the paper calls for reforms that: (1) institutionalize stakeholder representation within regulatory agencies; (2) empower grassroots citizens to drive monitoring and enforcement of rules; (3) update the procedural and presidential oversight requirements for agencies to enable greater participation; and (4) expand and rethink the staffing, resources, and structure of agencies to facilitate participation.


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K. Sabeel Rahman is the President of Demos, a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. He is also an Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and the author most recently of Democracy Against Domination (Oxford University Press, 2017). His academic research focuses on issues of democracy, economic power, law, and inequality. He has worked extensively with a range of think tanks, advocacy organizations, and foundations to develop novel approaches to addressing these issues in practice. His popular writings have appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Boston Review, Dissent, and The Washington Post. He earned his law degree and doctorate at Harvard University, and his Masters degrees at the University of Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar.Since 2013, Rahman has served as the Research and Design Director and a member of the founding leadership team of the Gettysburg Project, a Ford Foundation-funded initiative to facilitate innovation among leading practitioners and scholars in the fields of community organizing, civic engagement, and economic justice movements. Rahman’s first book, Democracy Against Domination (forthcoming, Oxford University Press) offers a new account of how ideals of democracy can respond to persisting disparities of economic power. In addition to his academic work, his writings have appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Review, The Nation, and Salon.com.