Businesses fear being blindsided by regs

The Obama administration’s failure to release its legally required regulatory agenda has business groups worried that they could be blindsided by costly new federal rules.

Federal regulators are required to release a Unified Agenda in the spring and fall — typically occurring in April and October — that details plans and anticipated deadlines for regulations.

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But Obama officials have missed the spring deadline for the second year in a row, stoking anxiety for businesses that want to know what mandates and rules are coming down the pike.

“This is the one place where, across all government, agencies are supposed to coordinate,” said Rosario Palmieri, the vice president of infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Small businesses, especially, should not be surprised by regulatory initiatives.”

Business Roundtable Vice President Liz Gasster said the agenda documents are “very important” to their members, which include the chief executives of some of the nation’s largest corporations.

The advanced heads-up is essential for providing “certainty” to various industries that are looking to make investments, Gasster said.

The administration hasn’t released a Unified Agenda since Dec. 21. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) ripped the administration for posting the last document a few days before Christmas, “at a time,” he said, “when they believed as few people as possible might see it.”
Issa sent a letter to the White House last week noting the passing of the April deadline for the spring agenda.

“It is your responsibility to ensure that [the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] OIRA follows the law and keeps the public informed about regulations,” Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the newly confirmed director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which houses OIRA.

OIRA, which reviews most regulatory actions from the executive branch, has been without a permanent head since the departure of its former administrator, Cass Sunstein, last August.

The Regulatory Information Service Center (RISC) — an office within the General Services Administration — and the OMB are charged with compiling the regulatory playbook every six months.

The budget office didn’t respond to questions about the status of the spring Unified Agenda by press time.

Although larger corporations may have the manpower to stay on top of federal agencies and their regulatory plans, trade groups say smaller businesses rely on the documents to anticipate what new rules are on the horizon.

The advanced notice that the agenda provides is also crucial for stakeholders because most of the deliberations over regulations and revisions happen before official proposal documents are even released.

Once a rule is proposed, “the cake is already baked,” said Sam Batkins, the director of regulatory policy at the conservative nonprofit American Action Forum.

The absence of a heads-up from the Obama administration has frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are interested in a host of proposed regulations governing everything from hydraulic fracturing to finance.

In the House Oversight Committee’s letter to Burwell, Issa and Jordan criticized OIRA for providing “vague excuses about the tardiness of the documents and generalizations about OIRA’s plans to publish them.”

The criticism comes as Republicans accuse Obama of using the regulatory process to circumvent Congress on several fronts, including several highly contentious rules aimed at curbing climate change.

Democrats, meanwhile, complain the White House is intentionally moving slowly on important worker protections that have been held up at OIRA with no explanation.

A rule limiting the construction and shipyard workers’ exposure to harmful silica dust has languished at the office for more than two years. In the absence of a Unified Agenda, it is unclear whether the administration plans to implement such regulations.

“The OIRA needs to act in a far more transparent and expedited way to make decisions on rules under consideration,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who described the silica rule as “critical to protecting workers’ health.”

Business groups have also complained that the unified agendas could be far more transparent about the administration’s plans.

“This administration, and previous administrations, could be more thoughtful about using the document to more thoughtfully approach regulation in general,” Palmieri said. “Each agency is kind of off on its own, trying to accomplish its specific mission.”

It’s often not one regulation that can burden an industry, Palmieri said, but several can combine to create a flurry of compliance hurdles if agencies don’t coordinate.

“Two agencies might be doing something separately that could have an impact on business that they don’t even realize,” he said.
American Action Forum and other conservative groups have chalked up last year’s delay in the Unified Agenda to “election year politics,” claiming the administration did not want to face blowback on future regulations, especially on the implementation of ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank reform law.

“It’s not something that should be a political document,” Batkins said. “It’s just an agenda of what’s going on.”

Julian Hattem contributed to this report.