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Dec
22

CPR Report on OIRA’s Meetings Ignores Their Context

Editor’s Note: Stakeholders are encouraged to comment on these opposing views. If we receive enough comments we will consider preparing a White Paper for submission to OIRA.
 
Stuart Shapiro
Reg Blog

Stuart Shapiro.jpgThe Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) recently issued a report fiercely criticizing the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) under the Obama Administration.  Among other things, the report claims that OIRA:

 is a tool of industry and meets with industry far more often than it meets with groups that support regulation, even under the Obama Administration.
 
•  treats the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “whipping boy,” meeting with industry over EPA rules more often than over other rules.
 
•  ignores the limits on its review under Executive Order 12866, reviewing far more rules than just those that are “economically significant.”
 
•  has changed more rules under the Obama Administration than under the Bush Administration.
 
On the surface, these claims paint a picture of an administration beholden to industry and cast doubt on claims of open government and balanced participation.
 
One does not have to dig too deeply below the surface, however, to realize that information omitted from the CPR report leads to a very different understanding of the operations of OIRA.  As a former OIRA desk officer, I bristle at the assertions, even though they have been made in one form or another for 30 years and no amount of data to the contrary will stop them.  Let’s look at each of the assertions above in turn.
 
OIRA does meet with industry more often than other groups.  But OIRA repeatedly states that it meets with whoever requests a meeting.  As CPR acknowledges, no one can produce an instance of a public interest group being denied access to OIRA.  I have heard former OIRA Administrator Sally Katzen talk publicly about how she would beg public interest groups to request meetings with little response. 
 
Magnifying_glass.jpg CPR argues that a lack of resources hampers public interest groups’ ability to meet with OIRA.  However, from personal experience I can attest that in many meetings, lobbyists simply repeat the arguments they make in public comments and in legal briefs.  If you have enough resources to file comments or engage in judicial cases involving rules, then you have enough resources to meet with OIRA.  Most public interest groups cross this threshold.
 
The relationship between OIRA and the EPA is a long and controversial one.  EPA rules are both the most costly and the most beneficial regulations that the federal government issues.  Because the stakes are so high with EPA rules, it should be no surprise that OIRA holds more meetings about them than any others. 
 
Similarly, the Obama Administration has issued more economically significant rules per year than the Bush Administration did.  So it should be no surprise that industry has felt the need to request meetings with OIRA at least as often under Obama as it did under Bush.
 
The “economic significance” trigger in Executive Order 12,866 is only one of four triggers for OIRA review.  The executive order is as much about presidential oversight as it is about cost-benefit analysis. 
 
The other three triggers, particularly the one that authorizes OIRA to review rules that raise “novel legal or policy issues,” have long been used to ensure presidential review, through OIRA, of rules that do not meet the economic significance threshold of having an annual impact of more than $100 million.  As long as the President maintains an interest in overseeing regulatory agencies, OIRA will review all potentially controversial rules.
 
Finally, the complaint that OIRA has changed more rules under the Obama Administration than under the Bush Administration has an easy explanation.  It is a sign that President Obama has appointed strong advocates for public health to lead agencies, who are now are proposing stricter (and therefore both more protective and more costly) rules than they did under President Bush.  OIRA will always suggest more changes to regulations that impose higher costs because its role is to serve as a balance to regulatory agencies.  One would expect the number of changes to be greater when proposed regulations are stricter.
 
The CPR report also spends a lot of time criticizing OIRA as opaque, a criticism that has been made for 30 years.  However, if OIRA were indeed opaque (as it was under the Reagan Administration), CPR would have had none of the data for its report.  Under the previous three administrations, OIRA has become so much more transparent that today we may know more about its decision processes than even those of any of the agencies with which it interacts.
 
CPR is an advocacy group, and its recent report should be read as simply that, a piece of advocacy.
 

Stuart Shapiro is Associate Professor and Director of the Public Policy Program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.  From 1998 to 2003, he served as a policy analyst in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. 

Centralized Review Politicizes Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment

Rena Steinzor |
Reg Blog

Rena_Steinzor.jpg As regular readers of RegBlog know, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) wields enormous influence over the federal regulatory process in the United States. But the mechanics of that influence have always been a bit of a mystery. Proposed regulations go into OIRA and come out some time later, often weakened during their stay. But what happens in the black box that is OIRA?

Last week, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), released the results of an exhaustive examination of OIRA’s work over the last decade. What we found surprised us. Simply put, OIRA under President Obama has exacerbated the already excessive politicization of the regulatory process; it has continued to serve as a forum for special interests seeking to overturn the sound judgment of scientists and other experts at regulatory agencies; it has failed to follow through on the President’s oft-stated commitment to transparency; and it has served as a one-way ratchet – weakening protective regulations at the behest of regulated industries. 
 
We examined two things. First, we looked at the meetings OIRA held during regulatory review. Second, we looked at whether proposals were changed by OIRA. We compiled an exhaustive database of OIRA’s work over the last decade, and compared Bush’s OIRA with Obama’s.
 
Industry interests dominate OIRA’s meetings with outside parties. For every public interest representative who attends a meeting, five special interest lobbyists offset their concerns. In a large majority of cases, OIRA hears only from industry representatives. When OIRA meets with industry stakeholders about a rule, it is more likely to change the rule – and those changes run in one direction, toward making protections more lax.
 
We also found that OIRA extends its review beyond “economically significant” rules, the ones imposing costs more than $100 million in costs that are the focus of Executive Order (EO) 12866. OIRA is particularly obsessed with changing rules protecting the environment, watering down as many as 84% of EPA proposals. In addition, OIRA routinely misses deadlines, stalling public health and safety requirements. Worst of all, OIRA operates in secrecy, ignoring public disclosure requirements.
 
Lock.jpg According to White House records, OIRA conducted 6,194 reviews of regulatory actions over the past ten years, 1,080 of which involved meetings with outside participants. The Obama Administration has improved only slightly on the record of the Bush Administration in this regard.  Sixty-two percent of attendees represented industry and 16 percent public interest groups under President Obama, while under Bush, 68 percent were industry and 10 percent public interest groups. OIRA under Obama changed more proposals than it did under Bush: 76 percent compared to 64 percent. Meetings make it 29 percent more likely that OIRA will change a rule.
 
OIRA is particularly aggressive with rules of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Even though EPA rules account for only 11 percent of the rules submitted to OIRA for review, OIRA has focused 41 percent of its meetings on EPA rules.
 
What’s particularly maddening about OIRA’s all-you-can-meet policy and its habit of changing rules is that the laws authorizing agencies to regulate require them to apply their expertise on relevant issues. OIRA is not the office specified in the statutes to conduct such reviews – that’s the agencies’ job. OIRA’s small band of economists doesn’t have anything approaching the expertise that EPA brings to environmental issues, for example, and the same is true for every other regulatory agency in its area of expertise. Agencies put that expertise to use, not just in drafting regulations, but in weighing the arguments presented to them. They are required to provide for comment periods, and to respond to the comments they receive. But then those proposals go to OIRA, which proceeds to re-create the public comment process, bringing little or no expertise on the substantive issues to the table.   
 
OIRA persists for the simple reason that it suits the political purposes of Presidents; it’s a way to bring the tough decisions about regulations back to the White House and away from the agencies, and in the process, OIRA subjects agency proposals to a sort of star chamber proceeding heavily weighted toward industry’s interests.
 
In fact, not only does OIRA routinely re-examine agency decisionmaking in this way, it even goes far beyond the terms of its executive order in the process. While only about 100 rules each year are the economically significant rules that EO 12866 instructs OIRA to focus on, OIRA extends its reach into every corner of the EPA’s and other agencies’ work, reviewing 500 to 700 rules annually. It’s no wonder OIRA routinely misses its deadlines!
 
OIRA also routinely flouts other requirements of EO 12866. Despite the requirements that OIRA make available “all documents exchanged between OIRA and the agency during review by OIRA” and that the agencies “identify for the public those changes in the regulatory action that were made at the suggestion or recommendation of OIRA,” these provisions are a dead letter in practice. OIRA has operated in secrecy under both Presidents Bush and Obama. 
 
The agencies that create the rules that OIRA reviews are the ones with statutory authority and expertise to protect public health, worker safety, the environment, and other areas. OIRA, which has no such authority or expertise in those areas, meets disproportionately with regulated industry members and then almost invariably weakens the protective rules proposed by the agencies. Even under President Obama, it functions as a refuge for special interests seeking to avoid regulation.
 
We had reason to hope for better from this President.
 
 
Rena Steinzor is a Professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and the President of the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR). This post draws from a recent report she wrote together with Michael Patoka, a law student at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and an intern at CPR, and James Goodwin, a Policy Analyst with CPR.

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