Webinar Recap: Achieving Social Justice through Better Regulations

James Goodwin

Dec. 17, 2019

Last week, my CPR colleagues and I were honored to be joined by dozens of fellow advocates and member of the press for a webinar that explored the recent CPR report, Regulation as Social Justice: A Crowdsourced Blueprint for Building a Progressive Regulatory System. Drawing on the ideas of more than 60 progressive advocates, this report provides a comprehensive, action-oriented agenda for building a progressive regulatory system. The webinar provided us with an opportunity to continue exploring these ideas, including the unique potential of the regulatory system as an institutional means for promoting a more just and equitable society.

Few organizations better illustrate this potential better than the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, so we were delighted to be joined at the top of the webinar by the organization's Founding Director, Anne Rolfes. Anne vividly described the work that the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is doing, empowering members of the vulnerable communities in Louisiana's infamous "Cancer Alley" to fight against the chemical plants and oil refineries that have long polluted their air, water, and land.

What stood out to me from Anne's presentation was the vital importance of effective regulatory enforcement to achieving social justice. Many of the organization's biggest successes have come through pushing the state's regulators to enforce the environmental and public health regulations that are already on the books. Thus, it is no surprise that corporate polluters and their allies among federal and state lawmakers are working so hard to weaken enforcement capacity at all levels of government. These lessons resonated with many of the findings and recommendations contained in the Regulation as Social Justice report, which highlighted how stronger enforcement mechanisms could help to empower members of the public, especially those from marginalized communities.

During the webinar, we also heard from CPR Board Member and Temple University Beasley School of Law professor Amy Sinden, who provided a deep dive into the wonky world of cost-benefit analysis and centralized regulatory review at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Amy traced the anti-safeguard origins of these institutions and explained how conservative policymakers and corporate polluters alike have worked for more than 40 years to entrench them into the framework of the broader regulatory system.

As Amy explained, the intended effect of cost-benefit analysis and OIRA continues to be realized today: These institutions serve to consolidate industry power over regulatory decision-making at the expense of the public interest. Consequently, she concludes that this dynamic will continue as long as these institutions remain in place. Any future presidential administration that is genuinely committed to promoting social justice and equity must take the steps of abolishing the use of regulatory cost-benefit analysis and fundamentally revamping the role of OIRA in the rulemaking process.

Amy's discussion of these issues highlights another important lesson from the Regulation as Social Justice report – namely, there's power in process. Opponents of safeguards certainly learned this a long time ago, and they effectively put it into practice with institutions like cost-benefit analysis and OIRA. The seemingly technocratic and politically neutral grounding of these institutions belied the fact that they were always rigged to produce the outcome that industry and small government ideologues wanted: weaker or fewer regulations. Proponents of stronger safeguards are playing a fool's game if they think they can overcome these kinds of procedural loaded dice and marked cards in order to advance their agenda.

Instead, progressive advocates must develop a strategy for remaking the rules in a way that gives the public interest the high priority they are accorded in protective statutes like the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, as well as to shift a greater share of power over the rulemaking process back to ordinary Americans. Importantly, the Regulation as Social Justice report offers some ideas for what this strategy might like, including a greater focus in decision-making on place and lived experience, as well as greater attention to cumulative impacts for marginalized communities. Only by first reclaiming their rightful place in democratic institutions like the regulatory system can progressive advocates begin pursuing the durable, systems-level changes needed for achieving a more just and equitable society.

If you were not able to join us for the webinar last week, we invite you to watch a recording of it below. For more information on the Regulations as Social Justice report, please visit this webpage. And to learn more about the great work of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, please visit their website.

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