White House slower to regulate as election approaches

By Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) — The pace of regulations issued by the Obama administration is receding as the nation’s economy falters and the 2012 election approaches.

Several of the most expensive and controversial rules — to protect the food supply, reduce exposure to silica dust, require rear-view cameras or other devices on cars, and more — remain under review by the White House long after they were expected to be published.

Advocates for the environment, health and safety say the  delay signals an effort by the administration to reconsider the economic and political impacts of its actions, in light of the struggling economy and the 2010 midterm elections that empowered Republicans.

At the very least, they say, the trend refutes charges that Obama has greatly increased the pace of government regulation.

“This notion that there’s been this huge upsurge is just a fantasy,” says Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy at the government watchdog group OMB Watch. “This year, it drops considerably.”

More than 1,000 final rules have passed through the White House regulatory shop since Obama took office in January 2009, including 200 labeled “economically significant” because they carry costs or benefits of at least $100 million. In the first three years, the average was about 300 rules a year, including 60 expensive ones. This year, the total number has dipped to 149, 25 of which are “significant.”

By contrast, George W. Bush’s administration issued more than 1,200 rules in its first four years, and Bill Clinton’s administration issued about 2,000. In each of those periods, about 180 had an economic impact of more than $100 million; Obama’s total of 200 may be higher partially because of the effects of inflation.

Administration critics, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, say the slowdown  is more rhetorical than real and may not signal a change of heart.

“They made a political decision,” says William Kovacs, vice president for the environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a very sophisticated approach of doing what they’re going to do but finding ways to avoid taking the hit for it before the election.”

The White House  says the change simply reflects careful analysis of the costs and benefits of regulations before they are implemented — a process that can lead to delays and changes.

“It’s not the case that our regulatory framework or results changed,” says Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House. “The goal all along has been to make sure that the rules we issue are first, consistent with law, but second, if they’re imposing significant costs, they better have significant benefits.”

The White House also says the cost of implementing its regulations pales compared with the overall benefits, which it estimates at $91 billion over three years. That includes  monetary savings as well as lives saved and injuries prevented.

“If you have a rule that’s expensive — it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the benefits are hard to explain — that rule is going to run into trouble,” Sunstein says.


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