Regulatory czar pick is an unknown in the battle over new rules

President Obama’s nominee to serve as the nation’s next regulatory czar is an economist and lawyer whose expertise lies in antitrust issues and whose resume includes stints in government, the private sector and academia.

But Howard Shelanski, current director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Economics, is a relative unknown to groups on both sides of the heated debate over the federal rulemaking process.

His background in economics and telecommunications offers few clues about his positions on environmental regulation, worker safety protections or any of more than 100 federal rules now awaiting the administration’s review.

If confirmed as administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Shelanski would be charged with vetting those rules, a task that would place him squarely in the middle of numerous policy fights.

Colleagues say the breadth of Shelanski’s experience – and his dual training as attorney and economist – would allow him to view contentious proposed rules through multiple lenses.

“The thing that distinguishes him from other economists is that he understands litigation, he understands the importance of weaving facts with empirical evidence,” said Matt Reilly, who worked closely with Shelanski at the FTC.

That could bode well for several consumer and government watchdog groups, who were critical of the previous OIRA administrator, Cass Sunstein. They contend Sunstein relied too heavily on strict cost-benefit analysis to make regulatory decisions, arguing that such a strategy does not take less intangible benefits into account.

During Sunstein’s three-year tenure, and in the months since his departure in August, the office has served only to slow and weaken rules, they said.

“Too often, OIRA has been the place that regulations, even those whose measured benefits far outweighed the costs, went to die,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of Economic Policy Institute. “The next administrator should respect the agencies’ expertise and help them fulfill their statutory missions, not impede them. OIRA is not a super-agency or the handmaiden of industry, and it should never act that way.”

Several public interest groups called Friday for increased transparency at OIRA, which is housed within the White House Office of Management and Budget. They offered hope that, if installed as administrator, Shelanski would move to clear the scores of rules that have languished at the office, in some cases for more than a year.

“His first priority should be to address the ever-growing backlog of rules currently under review at OIRA, one of the most significant backlogs in OIRA’s history,” said Virginia Robnett of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.

The conservative leaning American Action Forum, meanwhile, said Shelanski, if confirmed, would ultimately be judged on whether federal rules received proper scrutiny under his leadership, or if OIRA served merely as a rubber stamp for the executive agencies that drafted them.

“We are not familiar with Professor Shelanski's tenure but we are optimistic that his appointment signals a renewed push to apply rigorous analysis to every significant regulation,” said Sam Batkins, the group’s director of regulatory policy.

While his philosophy on regulatory decisions remained unclear, people who have worked with Shelanski said he was held in high regard at the FTC, where he has headed the economics bureau since last year.

He was the bureau’s deputy director of antitrust from 2009 to 2011.

“Howard's word was as respected as anyone's at the commission,” said Reilly, who spent 13 years at the FTC before leaving to become a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. “ When I had litigation recommendations, having Howard in support of that recommendation was a big deal. Commissioners really relied on him to make sure they were making the right decision.”

Dr. Joseph Farrell, who preceded Shelanski as director of the bureau, and was once his boss, described the nominee as “a serious person” whose fluency in both legal issues and economics would come in handy at OIRA.

"Howard was always very hard working, calm, level headed -- interested in innovation particularly, but just generally a solid economist,” Farrell said.

Shelanski, a one-time clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, spent time at the law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell.

He has also been a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center since 2011.

His involvement with George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, featured Shelanski as a resident expert, raised questions for Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who is president of the Center for Progressive Reform.

Steinzor said the center is “an industry-funded think tank and is well known for strongly advocating for anti-regulatory policies, indicating that in his new position, (Shelanski) must work especially hard to consider divergent views.”

Earlier in his career, Shelanski served as chief economist of the Federal Communications Commission and as senior economist for the president's Council of Economic Advisers during President Clinton’s second term.

He contributed slightly more than $3,000 to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, according to data kept by the Federal Election Commission.

Shelanski did not respond Friday to requests for comment on his nomination.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs must approve Shelanski before the full Senate can vote to confirm him to the position.

Julian Hattem contributed to this report.