Obama budget director nominee grilled on regulatory agenda

During an otherwise polite nomination hearing on Tuesday, President Obama's choice to be his next budget director was peppered with questions about the regulatory approaches she would adopt in the new post.

Sylvia Burwell, who was greeted warmly by senators on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee throughout the hearing on her nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), avoided making any statements about her approach to regulation that could be seen as controversial.

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"In terms of overall philosophy and how we can work to make our regulatory system work in a more effective way," she said, "I think it's starting with what the principles of what we're trying to do with the regulation and thinking through the issues of we do the regulations in order to promote health, safety and the environment. At the same time consider how those regulations impact the economy, economic growth, innovation and jobs."

As director of the OMB, Burwell would oversee the White House's regulatory review bureau, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). New and proposed rules from federal agencies must be approved by OIRA before they can be finalized.

The first substantive question asked of Burwell dealt with a regulatory matter. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) brought up a rule on commercial boilers and incinerators that he claimed will cost a constituent company $5 million. Johnson said the benefit of that cost will reduce nontoxic emissions by just "two dump truck loads full per year. That's it." He continued, "To me that certainly qualifies under the law of diminishing returns, that's something we really need to take a look at."

"This is real and all across all the corners of America," added Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) "People believe in clean water, they believe in clean air, they believe in safety regulations. But they see things that are happening in their business that make no sense."

Burwell was also challenged by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on the president's lack of response to a letter inquiring about his regulatory agenda, and multiple senators asked about a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday that found 31 areas of redundant or wasteful spending.


Burwell defended her small business-friendly credentials by noting that her father was an optometrist and that she grew up in rural West Virginia. "During my lifetime, my north star is being from a small community and a small town, and knowing and thinking about the issues from that perspective," she said.

The former deputy budget director in the Clinton administration admitted that "the regulatory area, the functioning of OIRA" is an aspect of the job that she felt "I will want to understand more deeply."

She also pledged to examine transparency within OIRA, and determine why some rules stay at the agency for review far beyond the 90-day limit.

Burwell will testify at another nomination hearing Wednesday, before the Senate Budget Committee.