Administration's Regulatory 'Look-Back' Announcement Panders to Industry, Focuses Primarily on Eliminating Regs, Diverts Agencies from Crucial Work

Amy Sinden

May 26, 2011

Following up on President Obama’s January Executive Order calling for agencies to conduct a regulatory “look-back,” the Administration today released a target list of health, safety, and environmental standards to be reviewed by agencies in the coming months, with an eye toward eliminating or modifying them.

The President’s January announcement was driven by politics, and from all appearances, the process of reviewing these regulations will be as well. In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, and in a speech today at the American Enterprise Institute – note the conservative venues chosen – “Regulatory Czar” Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, not only unveiled the target list but once again deployed the kind of anti-regulatory rhetoric one might expect from the Chamber of Commerce. Sunstein asserts that "Our goal is to change the regulatory culture of Washington by constantly asking what's working and what isn't. To achieve that goal, we need to obtain real-world evidence and data." The ugly implication, and it's incorrect, is that agencies don't currently carefully examine real-world evidence and data.

Several points stand out. First, what the White House initially billed last January as an objective examination of regulations appears to have been transformed into a blatantly one-sided effort to loosen restrictions on industry while paying little heed to the numerous threats to public health and the environment that remain unchecked. The Administration previously said that in addition to looking for regulations that are "excessively burdensome," it would also look for rules that are "insufficient" and might needed to be “expanded.” But today the notion of strengthening safeguards seems to have dropped out of the conversation.

Second, the Administration’s pandering to industry on this issue is in danger of doing long-term damage to the important business of protecting Americans from a variety of hazards. For one thing, the entire frame for this conversation, the one chosen by the White House in the President’s January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, is that regulation is bad for the economy and needs to be trimmed back. In fact, regulation strengthens the economy, saves lives, keeps American healthy and safe, and in a variety of ways contributes to Americans’ quality of life. In addition, it’s worth noting that many of the rules identified today are not examples of bad rulemaking, but rather of rules that have simply been overtaken by technology—a reexamination of a rule requiring vapor recovery systems at gas stations that has become less crucial because automobiles now have similar technology on-board, for example. Such rules made sense when adopted, and should be updated as needed. But spare us the “stupid regulation” rhetoric, please.

Finally, the entire look-back process, launched for apparently political reasons, has come at the expense of agency staff and resources that would otherwise have been devoted to finishing much-needed regulations on a variety of health, safety, and environment issues. For example, EPA has delayed action on its coal ash and boiler MACT rules, and is far behind schedule on a variety of other regulatory tasks. Sunstein touted this morning that agencies are still busy working on current rulemakings, but that seems obvious and not good reassurance by itself; agency resources diverted are agency resources diverted. And we are surrounded by evidence of the need for stronger regulation and enforcement: the BP oil spill, multiple examples of tainted food in the marketplace, the Massey mine disaster, and more. This look-back process has only added to the agencies’ burdens.

It’s what happens in Washington when politics becomes more important than policy.

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