In modern usage, red tape refers to the inefficient bureaucratic rules and procedures that prevent timely action. The figurative idiom comes from the old practice within governments, including the British one, of bundling official documents and bounding them with red tape, ribbon, rope, or string. The practice dates to the 16th or 17th century, and the figurative expression is nearly as old. The earliest instance cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1736, but it was not common until the middle 19th century.
The requirements of red tape having been thus scrupulously fulfilled, we are at liberty to believe that our streams are foul. [Chemical News (1873)]
We also owed much to Colonel Weston of the Commissary Department, who always helped us and never let himself be hindered by red tape. [The Rough Rider: An Autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt (1899)]
They merely charged illegality in the elections and wrapped up the whole situation in the interminable red tape of the law. [The Iron Heel, Jack London (1908)]
The new housing expediter, Wilson W. Wyatt, promised Saturday to cut any federal red tape which prevents shelter starved Americans from obtaining reasonably priced dwellings. [AP via Milwaukee Journal (1946)]
The Bush administration has announced another package of cuts in red tape for the financial markets in its election-year push to ease regulatory burdens on the economy. [AP via Pittsburgh Press (1992)]
David Cameron’s crusade to hack through red tape and streamline judicial reviews will limit the public’s ability to challenge poorly made government decisions. [Guardian (2012)]