Federal agency compliance with congressional regulatory deadlines

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The final years of the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, have been characterized by acrimonious debates over executive power and accountability. Regulatory deadlines are just one area in which the legislative and executive branches fail to see eye to eye. The ongoing implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a case in point. A 2012 American Action Forum report found that federal agencies had missed 47 percent of deadlines associated with the ACA. Similar analyses by Avik Roy indicate that roughly half of the mandated regulations associated with the ACA were either completed late or not completed at all.

Problems with Congressional deadlines go beyond the ACA: a June 2012 report by the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen analyzed 159 regulations subject to statutory deadlines in 2011 and found that agencies failed to complete 78 percent of required actions within the time-period allotted. Low levels of statutory deadline compliance are a concern to those on both ends of the political spectrum.

One might argue that these are exceptional cases, but unfortunately, deadline compliance is a systemic problem. Data collected for this analysis suggest that federal agencies failed to meet more than 1,400 deadlines between 1995 and 2014, which translates into an estimated success rate of less than 50 percent.

Interestingly, deadlines set by the judicial branch are met at a considerably higher rate – nearly 80 percent. The disparity in compliance rates emerges, in part, from the disparate legal treatment of different types of deadlines and from congressional incentives to engage in oversight. The fact that different deadlines generate different results suggests that deadline compliance can be improved by making oversight easier and by making statutory deadlines directly enforceable.