Richard Williams

Richard Williams

  • Director of Regulatory Studies Program
  • Senior Research Fellow

Richard Williams is the director of the Regulatory Studies Program and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is an expert in benefit-cost analysis and risk analysis, particularly associated with food safety and nutrition.

Williams has testified before the US Congress and addressed numerous international governments, including those of the United Kingdom, South Korea, Yugoslavia, and Australia. His media appearances have included NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Before joining the Mercatus Center, Williams was the director for social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He also was an adviser to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and taught economics at Washington and Lee University. He is a US Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

Williams received his PhD and MA in economics from Virginia Tech and his BS in business administration from Old Dominion University.

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Published Research

Working Papers

Richard Williams, Robert Graboyes, Adam Thierer | Oct 21, 2015
A new paper for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University shows why the current system of medical device approval discourages technological innovation and ultimately affects patient choice. The approval process could be improved by introducing competition for approval—a process that already exists in the European Union.
Richard Williams | Aug 18, 2015
The FDA has been charged by the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) with improving food safety in the United States. The four large regulations analyzed in this paper do not appear able to accomplish that mission. Part of the reason for this failure is that Congress has narrowly prescribed some of the reforms that must be in these regulations.
Jerry Ellig, Richard Williams | Aug 13, 2014
The number of regulations and their economic impact continue to grow. Yet the quality and use of economic analysis to inform regulatory decisions falls far short of the standards enunciated in executive orders governing regulatory analysis and review.
Patrick McLaughlin, Richard Williams | Feb 11, 2014
The American regulatory system has no working, systematic process for reviewing regulations for obsolescence or poor performance. Over time, this has facilitated the accumulation a vast stock of regulations. Regulatory accumulation can negatively affect GDP growth, labor productivity, innovation, and safety—perhaps explaining why every president since Jimmy Carter has recognized it as a problem.


Richard Williams | Jul 15, 2016
The US FDA receives funding through the general fund and user fees. Additional funding comes from the regulated industries. Specifically, the drug industry funds FDA through the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), and the medical device industry funds FDA through the Medical Device User Fee Act (MDUFDA). Both acts are considered a success for requiring FDA to improve approval time for drugs and devices. However, decreased approval times have not resulted in more drug and device innovation.
Richard Williams, Jason Briggeman, Ethan Roberts | Apr 04, 2016
The purpose of Food and Drug Administration’s Devices and Radiological Health Program is to provide assurance of the safety, effectiveness, and quality of medical devices. The work of the Devices Program is carried out by the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, plus field work done by the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA). Most observers, and particularly the FDA, believe that user fees have been successful in helping the Devices Program meet its performance goals in reducing “the total time it takes to make decisions.” But the evidence presented here suggests that greater capacity and spending for the Devices Program over the last decade has not yet led to an increase in the number of new-product applications and reviews.
Richard Williams, Jason Briggeman, Ethan Roberts | Mar 07, 2016
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Human Drugs Program provides assurance of the safety, effectiveness, and quality of pharmaceuticals. The work of the Human Drugs Program is carried out by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), plus fieldwork done by FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs. In this short presentation we focus on one key measure of the Human Drugs Program’s productivity.
Richard Williams, Tyler Richards | Nov 04, 2015
The FSMA mandates a HACCP-like approach for all food. There is no evidence that this approach is likely to result in any significant progress in lowering the rate of foodborne illness. In view of the experience of the last 20 years, neither increasing the FDA’s resources nor causing the food industry to spend more (in fact, much more) using this approach appears to be the answer.
Richard Williams | Oct 21, 2015
New technologies are poised to launch a health care revolution, improving care and cutting costs. Unfortunately, an obsolete regulatory framework for medical devices threatens to slow or derail important components of that revolution. A mid-1970s law requires virtually every medical device—and improvements to existing devices—to endure a slow, expensive, uncertain approval process, ill-suited to 21st-century technology. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which grants such approval, has an aging structure and culture that adds extra layers of discouragement to would-be innovators.
Richard Williams, Tyler Richards | Sep 02, 2015
Taxes and the costs of complying with regulation are two of the larger and more noticeable ways that private individuals pay for government services. Yet it may surprise most people to learn that a significant portion of the federal government’s expenditures and indirect costs to the US economy occur each year on “autopilot” without any action by the current Congress. These autopilot costs are annual expenditures from past legislation, interest payments, and regulations created by government agencies.
Richard Williams, James Broughel | Jun 09, 2015
Federal agencies issue guidance documents that typically consist of sets of instructions or announcements written to inform regulated parties how to stay in compliance with the law. Owing to a confusing set of events, it is unclear whether these documents are receiving executive branch oversight from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). In the case of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), hundreds of guidance documents appear on its website, yet there is almost no evidence of oversight from OIRA.
Richard Williams, James Broughel | Oct 01, 2014
Over the last decade, federal regulatory agencies finalized more than 37,000 regulations, yet 92 percent of rules escaped review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a small office tasked with reviewing significant regulatory actions promulgated by such agencies.

Policy Briefs

Richard Williams, James Broughel | May 27, 2015
Federal regulatory agencies have been required to produce a regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for major regulations since the early 1980s. The analysis should include an estimate of the expected benefits and costs of the regulatory action (a benefit-cost analysis, or BCA) as well as a description of the parties who are likely to receive those benefits and incur those costs. The latter part of an RIA is known as a distributional analysis, and is not part of a classic BCA. Distributional analysis explores how wealth is redistributed as a result of policy decisions.
Jerry Ellig, Richard Williams | Dec 12, 2014
Congress has a diverse array of proposed regulatory reforms vying for attention, from targeted reforms aimed at providing relief to small businesses to broadbased reforms of the rulemaking process. Setting priorities will be a challenge, but the common objective is clear: solving more problems at a lower cost with fewer regulations.
Richard Williams, Mark Adams | Feb 08, 2012
This paper shows how regulators can make Americans safer by writing clear, simpler rules and eliminating ineffective regulations.
Richard Williams, Robert Scharff, David Bieler | Feb 24, 2010
In a March 2009 address, President Obama declared, “There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat . . . are safe and don’t cause us harm.

Testimony & Comments

Richard Williams | Aug 17, 2016
Federal regulations affecting food are intended primarily to protect public health by ensuring that food is safe. These regulations affect both the cost of growing and manufacturing food and the ever-changing makeup of the food supply. According to President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866, food safety regulations (like all regulations) must be based on “the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic and other information concerning the need for, and consequences of, the intended regulation.” Agencies are also legally responsible for ensuring that the science and analysis within these regulations satisfies quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity requirements. Yet far too often, federal food regulations conform to none of these requirements. As a result, food regulations cost far too much and accomplish far too little, far too often. My testimony today will touch on these problems with our current food regulation system. I will provide several examples of failed food safety regulations and explain why there are better approaches to solve food safety problems than regulations that try to anticipate every conceivable problem.
Richard Williams, Michael L. Marlow, Edward Archer | Apr 12, 2016
The case examined here is the package of regulations that met the initial legal requirements provided by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA, Public Law 101-535). This act gave the FDA the authority to require nutrition labeling of most foods regulated by the Agency and to require that all nutrient content claims (e.g., “high fiber” or “low fat”) and health claims be consistent with agency regulations.
Richard Williams | Mar 15, 2016
This small agency, established in 1980 by President Carter to “regulate the regulators” and to give “OMB final word on many of the regulations issued by our government,” has largely failed to achieve either goal. The myth persists that OIRA is a “little-known but extraordinarily powerful” agency that has been a “bottleneck” for protective regulations. The data, however, simply do not support this notion.
Richard Williams | Jul 15, 2015
Thirty-five years ago, President Jimmy Carter began an experiment to, in his words, “regulate the regulators” to “eliminate unnecessary federal regulations.” His experiment was to form, through the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within OMB to allow the president to gain control over the regulatory agencies. We have now had 35 years of experience to see if President Carter’s goals have been achieved. They have not.

Research Summaries & Toolkits

Speeches & Presentations

Media Clippings

Richard Williams | Jul 24, 2011
Outlet: New York Times
Richard Williams | Mar 08, 2011
Outlet: Wall Street Journal
Richard Williams | Feb 15, 2011
Outlet: Quality Assurance
Richard Williams | Dec 02, 2010
Outlet: NPR

Expert Commentary

Jul 26, 2016

The real question bears repeating: Why is any federal bureaucrat allowed to come between a doctor and her patient and prevent a chance at life? It’s time to try another way.
Jul 01, 2016

“When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”…
Jul 01, 2016

This Fourth of July, scholars Daniel Griswold and Richard Williams discuss the issues of immigration and bureaucratic red tape in light of Indepedence Day themes of freedom and liberty.
Jun 24, 2016

Mercatus Center scholars weigh in on the United Kingdom's historic vote to leave the European Union, examining the impetus behind the vote and the potential future repercussions.
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