President Trump is weighing a key nomination as he seeks to roll back federal regulations.
The White House is on the verge of naming a new leader for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an agency that vets the work of federal regulators and has the final say on whether their rules are published.
Trump has narrowed down his list of potential OIRA administrators to lobbyist Paul Noe and Neomi Rao, an associate law professor at George Mason University, sources say.
“What we really want is someone who will be a fair referee of regulation,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told The Hill. “The director will not be responsible for writing the rules, so much as checking the homework of the federal agencies.”
OIRA works with federal regulators to shape their most important rules, but this small White House office is obscure, even inside the Beltway.
“Probably 99 percent of people couldn’t tell you what their name stands for,” said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy at the conservative American Action Forum.
Lankford compared leading OIRA to “working in the salt mines,” because “very few people see them, but they are extremely important.”
“OIRA is known as the ‘most important agency that no one has ever heard of,’” said Lankford, who leads a regulatory reform subcommittee in the Senate.
“They took a back seat during the Obama administration,” said Lankford, referring to the many controversial regulations issued under the former president. But Trump has given OIRA “heightened responsibility.”
OIRA is at the center of the long-running ideological fight over regulations between Republicans and Democrats, some of whom would like to eliminate the agency. The nominee must be confirmed by the Senate.
“In some people’s minds, a vote for the OIRA nominee is a vote for less regulation,” Batkins said.
Supporters of regulatory protections are concerned the new OIRA administrator will usher in a “sea change” in the way the agency handles the rulemaking process.
OIRA must not simply “rubber stamp repeals of Obama-era regulations left and right,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate at the left-leaning Public Citizen.
Public Citizen President Robert Weissman warned the new OIRA administrator could “wield a wrecking ball against the health, safety, environmental, consumer, worker rights, civil rights and financial security protections upon which Americans rely.”
“Most people call the administrator a regulatory czar, but that’s not accurate, because most of the things OIRA will be reviewing are deregulations,” Narang added.
Trump has set a goal of eliminating 75 percent of federal regulations, which is sure to keep OIRA busy.
The next OIRA administrator will also ensure federal agencies follow Trump’s executive orders on regulations, including his controversial requirement that agencies remove two regulations for each new rule they issue.
“The office always has more to do than it can possibly handle,” said former OIRA Administrator Susan Dudley.
“The challenge will be finding regulations that aren’t working all that well and are costing society too much money,” said Dudley, who served during the George W. Bush administration and now leads the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.
“It takes at least a year to write a new regulation, and just as long to remove it, so we’re talking about a process that could take years,” she added.
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said earlier this week he has narrowed down the list of OIRA candidates to two people.
Mulvaney didn’t name either candidate, but reports suggest it will be either Noe or Rao, both of whom “fit the Trump mold,” suggested James Goodwin, regulatory policy expert at the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform.
“They share Trump’s passion for deregulation,” Goodwin said.
Noe is the vice president for public policy at the American Forest & Paper Association, where he spends a significant amount of time lobbying OIRA.
During the Bush administration, Noe was the counselor to then-OIRA Administrator John Graham.
“Paul Noe has been on both sides of the table at OIRA,” Goodwin said. “He knows the office inside and out, and brings that insider approach to OIRA.”
Noe’s experience could help OIRA “function more smoothly,” Goodwin said. But the downside is Noe is an “inside-the-Beltway lobbyist, which is the exact sort of person Trump decried on the campaign trail.”
By contrast, most of Rao’s experience has come in either the classroom or the courtroom. In addition to launching the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason, Rao also clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and was the White House associate counsel, where she advised Bush on legal matters.
“Neomi Rao is more of an academic,” Goodwin said. “She’ll approach regulatory reform with a much more theoretical mindset.”
“She strikes me as more of an outsider, which could play in her favor if Trump continues with an outsider approach,” he added.