5:00am

Mon November 28, 2011
Politics

Obama Office Alters More Federal Rules Than Bush

Originally published on Mon November 28, 2011 6:26 pm

Tucked away in a corner of the White House's Old Executive Office Building, an office that most people have never heard of affects millions of Americans' lives. It's the last hurdle that every proposed regulation must surmount before seeing the light of day. And a new study of this obscure part of the government suggests that President Obama is altering more of those regulations than President George W. Bush did.

Health and safety regulations are not born fully formed. They have to run a long marathon first. Once an agency devises a rule proposal, whether to regulate air pollution or food safety, scientists and lawyers study the impact and cost of the rule. Agencies gather public comments. After a process that may take years, the regulation goes through one last gantlet in a place called OIRA (pronounced "oh-EYE-ra").

OIRA stands for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. It's part of the White House office that manages the entire federal budget. Michael Fitzpatrick has worked there for three years, in an office taller than it is wide. His window looks out over the White House's West Wing.

"In all of our lives, we have others review our work and make sure we're doing it as well as possible. And that's the way I view OIRA's role," he said in an interview with NPR.

He compares his role to that of an editor — looking at every proposed rule and asking, "Are you achieving this regulatory objective in the smartest, most effective, most efficient way possible?"

A 'Killing Ground' For Protective Rules?

The outcome, according to a new study by the Center for Progressive Reform, is that the office "has served as a killing ground for protective rules."

"We studied the records of 1,080 meetings that have been held at OIRA over the last 10 years," said Rena Steinzor, CPR's president. "And we found that OIRA has changed 84 percent of environmental regulations, and 65 percent of other agencies' regulations, and the change rate is worse than it was under George W. Bush."

In other words, her group argues, this president is watering down or undoing a greater percentage of proposed regulations than his predecessor did.

Fitzpatrick, who sits at the center of this debate, argues that his office is improving regulations, not gutting them.

"When you are dealing with the most complex questions of policy, it's to be expected that there are going to be questions raised and insights gleaned that cause an agency to say, 'You know what? We should make a change here or there. We can do this in an even better way.' "

While the rest of the public might not know about OIRA, lobbyists have the office on speed dial. Industry groups visit OIRA largely for one purpose: to reduce regulation. Steinzor's analysis found that industry representatives outnumber public health and safety advocates by almost 4 to 1 at OIRA meetings.

Jim Tozzi helped create OIRA and worked on regulations under five presidents. He says the tilt toward industry is to be expected.

Regulations, he says, "increase the cost of industry. So they have more direct skin in the game." In contrast, he says, environmental groups' members "don't have skin in the game, because they just say 'they'll cough their lungs out' or something like that."

Besides, Tozzi says, "If they meet with you more, it doesn't mean they're going to agree with you." OIRA has an open-door policy of never turning down a meeting with anyone.

Despite these figures suggesting that the Obama White House is altering more regulations than Bush and meeting with industry far more than with public safety advocates, Republicans accuse President Obama of choking the economy with a glut of "job-killing regulations." Some of that complaint has to do with health care and financial reform — two big laws that include a lot of regulations.

Striking A Balance

Obama always emphasizes the need to strike a balance, saying rules that don't make sense should die, while others are important.

"I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury. Or laws that prevent the health care industry from short-changing patients," he said in a September speech to Congress.

People who have spent their careers in this field are not surprised to learn that the Obama White House is changing more draft rules than the Bush White House did.

John Graham ran the regulatory oversight office under George W. Bush. In his experience, Republican presidents tend to put people who don't like new rules in charge of agencies — so those agencies don't send a lot of regulations to a Republican-led White House for review.

In fact, "we had to devise an entirely new device called the prompt letter," Graham recalls. "It says, 'You really ought to strengthen the food label by putting the trans-fat content of foods on the label.' But I think what you'll find in the Obama administration is that there are no shortages of ideas of new regulations to be adopted coming out of the agencies."

While OIRA staffers try to evaluate those ideas based on the merits of each proposal, many people who've worked there in the past say sometimes raw politics comes into play.

Susan Dudley, who worked at OIRA in the Reagan administration and came back to run the office at the end of the George W. Bush administration, recalls a former office head telling her, "Sometimes you have to kiss a pig." That is to say, "Sometimes politics wins the day."

Therefore, the person who runs OIRA is tremendously important. If he or she has the president's ear, OIRA can win arguments at the White House. Otherwise the office can easily be bulldozed by other senior advisers.

The man who runs OIRA today is a legal superstar named Cass Sunstein, who is close friends with President Obama. They taught at the University of Chicago Law School together. People say half-jokingly that Sunstein could have had any job in the federal government, and he chose to run OIRA.

Sunstein's deputy, Mike Fitzpatrick, acknowledges that senior White House officials sometimes have their say. But he cautions that politics is not always a dirty word.

"I know that there have been times through all administrations of both parties that at the end of the day, in a particularly complex, tough situation, the president or his senior advisers have said, 'You know what? I don't want to do this right now.' And frankly, that's why we have national elections."

Ultimately, one of OIRA's main jobs is to put a dollar value on things that nobody wants to price. The office must ask how much money the country is willing to spend to save an endangered species, or what cost the country is willing to inflict on companies in order to provide veterans in wheelchairs access to restrooms. These are questions that nobody is comfortable asking. So perhaps it should be no surprise that few people are happy with OIRA's answers.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

We're going take you now to an obscure office in Washington, D.C., one that most Americans have never heard of. Though little known, it affects millions of people's lives, and represents the last hurdle before any federal regulation can take effect.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on a new study of this tiny corner of the government, and it suggests President Obama is scaling back more regulations than his predecessor did.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Health and safety rules don't just show up one day, fully formed. They have to run a long marathon first. An agency devises a regulation - say, to limit air pollution or protect food safety. Scientists and lawyers study the impact and cost of the rule. They gather public comments and then, after a process that may take years, the draft goes through one, last test.

So this room is where every regulation passes the final hurdle, huh? Right here?

MICHAEL FITZPATRICK: Yeah. This is...

SHAPIRO: Actually, Michael Fitzpatrick is in one of a few rooms where people review draft regulations. It's taller than it is wide. His kids' drawings decorate the office. And out the window, he can see the West Wing of the White House, just across the driveway. Here's how he describes his job.

FITZPATRICK: In all of our lives, we have others review our work and make sure we're doing it as well as possible. And that's the way I view OIRA's role.

SHAPIRO: OIRA - that's the name of this place. It stands for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

RENA STEINZOR: It has served as a killing ground for protective rules for many decades.

SHAPIRO: Rena Steinzor, of the Center for Progressive Reform, has believed for a long time that OIRA is where regulations go to die. Now, her group has set out to measure just how many die there.

STEINZOR: We studied the records of 1,080 meetings that have been held at OIRA over the last 10 years.

SHAPIRO: Here's why those meetings are important: While the rest of the public might not know about OIRA, if you're a lobbyist, they're on your speed dial. Industry groups visit OIRA mostly for one purpose - to reduce regulation. Steinzor's analysis of OIRA meetings found that visiting industry representatives outnumber public health and safety advocates by almost 4 to 1.

Jim Tozzi helped create OIRA, and he worked on regulations under five presidents. He says the tilt towards industry is not a problem.

JIM TOZZI: The regs increase the cost of industry. So they have more direct skin in the game than the NGOs - not that the NGOs' members don't have skin in the game because they'll say - oh, they'll cough their lungs out, or something like that.

SHAPIRO: Besides, Tozzi says, OIRA never turns down a meeting with anyone.

TOZZI: If they meet with you more, it doesn't mean they're going to agree with you. I mean, they just come in and you'll listen to them, OK?

SHAPIRO: So the question is, what's the result of those meetings? Well, Steinzor's group analyzed that, too.

STEINZOR: We found that OIRA has changed 84 percent of environmental regulations and 65 percent of other agencies' regulations, and that the change rate was worse than it was under George W. Bush.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying the Obama White House is watering down, or undoing, a greater percentage of proposed regulations than the Bush White House did?

STEINZOR: Yes, I am. That's what our empirical study shows.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Republicans accuse this president of just the opposite. They say he's choking the economy with what they call job-killing regulations. Some of that has to do with health care and financial reform, two big laws that include a lot of regulations.

President Obama always emphasizes the need to strike a balance, saying rules that don't make sense should die, while others are important and ought to survive. Michael Fitzpatrick, who sits at the center of this debate, argues that his office is improving rules - not gutting them.

FITZPATRICK: When you are dealing with the most complex questions of policy, it's to be expected that there are going to be questions raised, and insights gleaned, that cause an agency to say, you know what? We should make a change here or there; we could do this an even better way than what we thought when we came in.

SHAPIRO: People who have spent their careers in this field are not surprised to learn that the Obama White House is changing more draft rules than the Bush White House did.

John Graham ran the regulatory oversight office under George W. Bush. He says Republican presidents tend to put people in charge of regulatory agencies who actually don't like new rules, so those agencies don't send a whole lot of new regulations to a Republican-led White House for review. In fact, in his day, his office told agencies to send more.

JOHN GRAHAM: We had to devise an entirely new device, called the prompt letter. It says: You really ought to strengthen the food label by putting the transfat content of foods on the label. But I think what you'll find in the Obama administration is, there are no shortage of ideas of new regulations to be adopted, coming out of the agencies.

SHAPIRO: While OIRA staffers try to evaluate those ideas based on the merits of each proposal, many people who have worked there in the past say sometimes, a more direct kind of pressure is brought to bear. Susan Dudley worked at OIRA in the '80s, then came back to run the office at the end of the last Bush administration.

SUSAN DUDLEY: When I was on the career staff of OIRA, Wendy Gramm was an administrator. And she said, sometimes you have to kiss a pig.

SHAPIRO: You're saying sometimes, politics wins the day.

DUDLEY: Sometimes, politics wins the day.

SHAPIRO: Therefore, the person who runs OIRA is tremendously important. Someone who has the president's ear can win arguments at the White House. Someone else might get bulldozed.

The guy who runs OIRA today is a legal superstar named Cass Sunstein. He's been close friends with President Obama since they taught at the University of Chicago Law School together. People say half-jokingly that Sunstein could have had any job in the federal government, and he chose to run OIRA. Sunstein's deputy, Michael Fitzpatrick, cautions that politics is not always a dirty word.

FITZPATRICK: I know that there have been times, through all administrations of both parties, where at the end of the day in a particularly complex, tough situation, the president or his senior advisors have said, you know what? I don't want to do this right now. And frankly, that's why we have national elections.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, OIRA's job is to put a dollar value on things that nobody wants to price. How much money are we willing to spend to save an endangered species? What cost is too high to give people in wheelchairs access to restrooms? They're questions that nobody is comfortable asking, so perhaps it's no surprise that few people are happy with OIRA's answers, either.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.