Laws vs. Regulations … and Why the Difference Matters

By RT, IndivisibleSB Staff Writer

The term “laws” is commonly used to describe the overall system of rules enforced by society to govern behavior. When used in this sense, our laws include the rules made by Congress or other legislative bodies, e.g., state legislatures, by the executive branch through regulations, or by the courts through rulings that result in binding precedent. Although this all-encompassing, generic definition is useful in our everyday lives, having some knowledge of the finer points is helpful if we desire to impact public policy and its effects on our society.

Laws vs. Regulations

Congress passes national laws, often called Acts, such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Clean Air Act. The agencies, boards, and commissions empowered to enforce the Acts are authorized to adopt regulations that implement them; the federal regulations, therefore, follow from the Acts. These regulations have the force of law, fill gaps in the legislation, and help agencies carry out their duties and mission, as defined in the Acts. Federal regulations are published in The Code of Federal Regulations.

Federal regulations are created through a process known as rulemaking. If an agency wants to make, change, or delete a rule, the normal process is for the agency to publish the proposal in the Federal Register and seek public comments, which may include hearings in addition to written comments. After the agency considers the public’s comments and makes any revisions to the rule, it publishes the rule’s final version in the Federal Register, along with a description of the comments received, the agency’s response to those comments, and the date the rule goes into effect. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) outlines required rulemaking procedures for Federal regulations.

Why This Matters

It is certainly true that Acts (and other laws considered and passed by Congress) critically impact public policy and our quality of life. Consider, for example, the profound differences between the ACA and the American Health Care Act (AHCA),  the 2017 House version of TrumpCare. Whereas the ACA resulted in expansion of healthcare coverage for millions of Americans, analyses of the AHCA show that millions would lose healthcare coverage.

However – and this is important – the regulations that follow the passage of Acts also profoundly impact public policy and our quality of life. The regulations include many of the details of how the law will be implemented, and those details mean a great deal.

Impacting Public Policy

If you want a say in public policy and the quality of life in the US, the implications are clear. After you have contacted your members of Congress on proposed Acts or other legislation, after the legislative battle in Congress has been won or lost, you still have an essential role to play. During the rulemaking and implementation phases, it is vitally important that you continue to make your voice heard – by the Cabinet secretaries and agencies responsible for implementation, by your members of Congress (again), and by all the officeholders, whether elected or appointed, who you believe may be able to have an impact.

How a Bill becomes a Law (simplified)

For those interested in a bill’s steps before becoming law, here is a popular cartoon video.