Obama officials put regulations on the chopping block

The Obama administration laid out plans Thursday to review hundreds of regulations that could get streamlined or scrapped in response to criticism from the GOP and business that burdensome rules are holding back the economy.

The 30 agencies and departments with significant rulemaking activity have submitted for public review more than 500 pages of initiatives that could save billions of dollars a year, according to White House regulatory czar Cass Sunstein. 

While the review process is ongoing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Thursday that it is eliminating redundant reporting requirements on employers, a change that is estimated to save $40 million and 1.9 million hours of paperwork per year.

"Our goal remains protecting the health and well-being of Americans," said White House budget director Jacob Lew, "but to do it in a simpler, smarter, and more cost-effective way."

The "look-back" plan announced Thursday comes after President Obama's Jan. 18 executive order calling for a government-wide review of regulations that are "out-of-date, unnecessary, excessively burdensome, or in conflict with other rules," according to the White House.

The review, Sunstein said, aims to "change the regulatory culture of Washington" by encouraging a "less polarized" debate "between those who celebrate regulation and those who decry regulation." 

The aim is to "demonstrate with deeds, not words, that we can both go forward with sensible regulation that actually saves lives or otherwise delivers big help, while also and simultaneously and without the least contradiction scaling back regulations and eliminating them if they don't make much sense," Sunstein said.

The regulatory review reflects moves by the administration to mend fences with the business community after the acrimonious fights over healthcare and Wall Street reform. 

The president picked William Daley, a familiar figure in the business world, to be his new chief of staff, and has moved forward with three trade agreements despite opposition from allies in labor.

Sunstein pushed back against liberal critics who fear the administration is bending too far in favor of business.

"There isn't an abstraction called businesses that is the recipient of regulatory costs," he said. He said the costs of regulations get passed on to the public.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce responded positively to the White House announcement but said it's only a start.

"It appears the administration is making some commonsense recommendations that will save businesses some time, money, headaches, and resources," wrote Bill Kovacs, a vice president at the Chamber, in a blog post. "This is progress." 

“This is also not nearly enough. … What we need is a plan to make our flawed regulatory system smarter, less intrusive, and more accountable," Kovacs wrote.

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Already, newly adopted changes that simplify employer paperwork, exempt milk from rules on oil spills and alleviate homeland security rules on airlines should save more than $200 million a year, Sunstein said. Other regulations under review could easily save billions.

Sunstein said the "stupidest" regulation he ran across during the review is a Treasury Department rule pertaining to Yugoslavia — a country that broke apart in the early 1990s.

The regulations under review by the administration include: 

• More than 70 transportation regulations, including rethinking where costly train equipment must be located;

• Upward of 50 Department of Health and Human Services regulations, including burdensome physician reporting requirements and duplicative documentation of blood type information at transplant hospitals; and 

• Endangered Species Act regulations at the Department of the Interior that can hold up conservation agreements.