Find it in the Federal Register – Government Transparency

Information is available at your fingertips.

Little Kid Wearing Pith Helmet Lying in Grass Looking through Binoculars

The Federal Register enables you to learn about proposed regulations and participate in the decision-making process of the U.S. federal government. I like that.

The purpose of the Federal Register is to be a source for and a record of the official actions of the executive branch of the U.S. government. Information is compiled into a consistent format that is published and made available to the public, in print and online, each business day (except federal holidays).

The Federal Register contains executive orders and proclamations issued by the president, rules and regulations that federal agencies are proposing, implementing, or repealing, and public notices about hearings, meetings, and federal grant applications.

After browsing a few issues of the Federal Register, I realized that it offers an early warning system of sorts by providing a heads up on what federal agencies are considering doing before they actually do it (and afterward, too.)

This empowers you and me to get involved early in issues that we care about by writing, calling, or emailing our elected officials, attending public meetings, and/or making public comments on specific items (anonymously if preferred).

Now, I subscribe to the Federal Register and receive a daily summary in my email inbox and you can, too.

In this post, you will have an opportunity to learn a little about the history of the Federal Register and then look at an example from the Friday, April 20, 2018 issue, which prompted this post. Here is a hint. What does the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 have to do with opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas exploration?

A Brief History of the Federal Register

The Federal Register got its start during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States in 1933, he immediately set about trying to fulfill his campaign promise of creating a New Deal for Americans who were suffering from the worst economic crisis in the country’s history. Between his executive orders and legislation from Congress, there was an onslaught of new programs, rules, and regulations resulting in a mountain of documents.

Back then, everything was printed on paper with little consistency in format and there were limited ways to make the information available to the public and other government agencies leaving many people in the dark. For instance, federal agencies found it difficult to keep track of their own documents and companies complained that they could not comply with regulations that they did not know existed.

Two pieces of legislation made substantial inroads into taming the document chaos and making information more accessible.

The National Archives Act of 1934 created a new agency responsible for taking custody of original federal government documents, archiving them, and making them available for public inspection. Later they were put in charge of publishing the Federal Register in conjunction with the Government Printing Office.

The Federal Register Act of 1935 required that certain documents be printed and distributed in a uniform and timely manner in a new publication called the Federal Register. The documents were to include: presidential proclamations and executive orders; documents the president determined to have general applicability and legal effect; documents required to be published by Act of Congress; and documents authorized to be published by regulations.

Federal Register, Volume 1, No. 1, March 14, 1936
Federal Register, Volume 1, No. 1, March 14, 1936

A feature of the law was that no document could be used against any person unless it had been published in the Federal Register first. That also meant that people could not claim ignorance of rules and regulations anymore.

One way for people to keep current was to pay $10.00 a year for a Federal Register by mail subscription.

The first Federal Register rolled off the printing press on March 14, 1936.

This 16-page publication was mostly taken up by regulations from the Treasury Department pertaining to the newly passed Social Security Act. It also included a presidential executive order with extensive directions about enlarging the Cape Romain Migratory Bird Refuge in South Carolina and a cryptic notice from the Department of Agriculture about a public hearing scheduled to address the regulation of milk handling in St. Louis, Missouri.

Since its inception in 1936, the Federal Register system has expanded and evolved.

In 1937, Congress passed an amendment to the Federal Register Act providing for a codification of regulatory documents resulting in the Code of Federal Regulations that exists today. Regulations in the Code are organized into fifty subject areas called Titles, such as Title 7 – Agriculture, Title 21 – Food and Drugs, and Title 40 – Protection of Environment.

The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 was important because it made the rulemaking process (creating regulations) more transparent to the public. This law requires federal agencies to publish notices and information in the Federal Register about proposed rulemaking and provide an opportunity for the public to comment before the final rules can be put into effect.

The Federal Register system entered the Internet age in 1992 when the Federal Register became available via an electronic bulletin board. Nowadays, the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations have their own websites and everything is available online as well as in print.

These are just a few of the highlights of the history of the Federal Register. If you are interested in more in-depth information, there are links in the resource section below.

Next is a current example of the Federal Register.

Federal Register, Volume 83, No. 77, April 20, 2018

Earlier in the post, I posed the question, “What does the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 have to do with opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas exploration?” You may already know the answer. If not, read on.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Looking Toward Brooks Range Mountains - Photo Credit USFWS
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Looking Toward Brooks Range Mountains in Alaska – Photo Credit USFWS

You are probably familiar with President Trump’s promise to reduce corporate tax rates in hopes that with more money in their pockets companies will create jobs for Americans. Congress pushed through and passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 on December 22, 2017, so the president could sign it before Christmas.

Buried on page 182 of the 185-page Tax Act is a prime example of pork barrel politics in action, which is when a completely unrelated item is tacked onto a bill because it would not have had enough support in Congress to pass on its own.

This add-on to the Tax Act makes a small but significant amendment to the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which specifically prohibits the production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) unless authorized by an Act of Congress.

The Tax Act provided the necessary Act of Congress and directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to open up the 1.6 million acres of the ANWR known as the Coastal Plain for an oil and natural gas leasing program.

By law, the BLM is required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (a report) before they can implement a new oil and gas leasing program. They are also required to inform the public of their intention to do so via the Federal Register and to provide an opportunity for public comment.

Thanks to the early warning provided by the Federal Register, this issue is now on my radar screen. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get in on the ground floor so to speak by making a public comment on the website where the BLM is accepting comments. Please consider joining me and making your own comment.

BLM ANWR Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Program EIS Notice Public Comment

After reading this post, I hope you have gained an appreciation for the value of the Federal Register and will take a few minutes to create your own account and subscription. The sign-up link is in the upper right-hand corner of the Federal Register website.

Featured Image at Top: Little Kid Wearing a Pith Helmet Lying in the Grass Looking through Binoculars – Photo Credit iStock/Maartje van Caspel

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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