Regs czar nominee vows to slash onerous rules

President Obama’s nominee to head an obscure but powerful regulatory office on Wednesday promised to make scrapping burdensome rules a priority.

Howard Shelanski’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs were his first public remarks since he was tapped in April to serve as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

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With industry and public interest groups watching closely, a largely noncommittal Shelanski avoided definitive answers on several contentious topics, including the merit of proposed environmental regulations and the proper reach of OIRA’s jurisdiction.

His testimony focused instead on the need to strike a balance between drafting regulations that protect the public and ensuring that businesses aren’t overwhelmed with red tape.

He vowed to “institutionalize” the president’s initiative directing agencies to review all rules on the books and get rid of the ones that don’t make sense.

“It would be my hope through that process regulatory burdens could be reduced,” Shelanski told the panel.

He pledged to look into a variety of proposals to reform OIRA, which has critics on both the right and left. But he would not commit to putting more information on the federal website that tracks regulations, nor would he promise to publish the government’s rule-making plans twice a year.

Shelanski also declined to weigh in on legislation that would expand OIRA’s authority to independent agencies that are currently exempt from its scrutiny.

He repeatedly said he would not have opinions on those and other issues until he learned more about the office’s inner workings.

That explanation appeared to satisfy both Democrats and Republicans on the panel, as well as watchdogs groups that have been critical of OIRA.

“I believe him when he says he’s looking forward to learning more about this,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at the nonprofit group Public Citizen. “I take him at his word.”

Public Citizen and other groups have assailed the office for holding up the key regulations without explanation and have called on the Obama administration to open up the rule-making process.

Shelanski said he would work to limit the delays and look for ways to increase public access to the process.

“I believe that public involvement and transparency in regulation is critically important as we tackle the complex issues that our country and world face today,” he said.

Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), however, cautioned against speeding up the process. Lincoln now serves as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’sSmall Business for Sensible Regulations Coalition.

“Small businesses want reassurance from Mr. Shelanski that he will not heed calls to speed up a regulatory process that too often fails to find the right balance (or answers) because it neglects asking the right questions,” she said.

Shelanski, current director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics, is expected to have an easier path to confirmation than his predecessor, Cass Sunstein, whose nomination drew fire from conservatives.

Sunstein came under fire over his views on animal rights, but was ultimately confirmed and served for three years at OIRA before leaving office last August.

No members of the Senate panel voiced opposition on Wednesday to Shelanski’s nomination.

Committee Chairman Tom Carper  (D-Del.) said he would support confirmation, and praised Shelanski’s resume, which includes stints in government, academia and the private sector.

“Not surprisingly, Mr. Shelanski has earned a reputation among those he’s worked with of being not only very smart, but also articulate and highly collegial — qualities of character that will serve him well at a place like OIRA at the heart of our government,” Carper said.

Following the hearing, Carper said he saw no reason Shelanki’s nomination would be blocked, either in committee or in the full Senate.

Republicans did not question Shelanski’s qualifications, but they did hammer OIRA and the Obama administration for failing to do more to rein in agencies responsible for what they described as an outburst of job-killing federal rules.

“Most of it is well intended, but a lot of it his a whole lot of unintended consequences,” committee ranking member Tom Coburn (Okla.), said, arguing that OIRA served as the last line of defense for proposed rules that could cripple businesses. “You’re their last hope.”

Republicans on the panel urged Shelanski to come out in opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s renewable fuel standard and forthcoming ozone regulations.

While he declined to discuss those specific rules, Shelanski repeatedly said that he believed in using rigorous cost-benefit analyses to judge proposed rules.

He also signaled potential action to crack down on agencies that seek to skirt OIRA review by creating policy through guidance documents rather than formal proposed rules. Such documents could be subject to OIRA oversight, he suggested.

“Substance rather than labels should dictate OIRA review,” he said.

— This story was first posted at 10:17 a.m. and was last updated at 4:43 p.m.