Opponents of new regs finding ally in White House office, report finds

It comes on the eve of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Howard Shelanski, a lawyer and economist tapped by President Obama to head OIRA. The administrator post has been vacant since last summer.

The report is the second issued Tuesday that calls for increased transparency at OIRA. A separate study issued by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards concluded that stalled rules at OIRA are denying the public important protections, ranging from air quality controls to minimum wage rights for certain workers.

Amit Narang, author of the Public Citizen report, said its timing is no coincidence.

“We think releasing it tomorrow will help balance calls in the hearing from Republicans to further empower OIRA, and inform the public about why conservatives support this obscure but powerful office in the White House so enthusiastically,” Narang said.

OIRA functions as the White House’s clearinghouse for significant rules drafted at executive branch agencies. The rules are submitted to OIRA both during both draft and final stages, vetted and returned with, or without changes.

The report contends that the office, while ostensibly a tool of an administration that approves of the regulations it proposes, has increasingly been used to slow-walk or altogether block politically sensitive regulations.

Critics often point to regulations limiting construction workers’ exposure to harmful silica dust as an example of a rule held back for undisclosed reasons.  Sought by labor unions and opposed by industry groups, the rule has languished at OIRA for more than two years.

Defenders of tighter regulations have questioned OIRA’s reliance on analyses measuring the costs and benefits of new rules, saying the practice has been used to halt protections. By giving too much weight to those analyses, the system is designed to promulgate the most regulations that are most cost effective regulations, but don’t necessarily accomplish their intended goals, they argue.

Republican members of Congress have sought to further restrict agencies’ ability to promulgate laws by pressing legislation giving congress the power to veto major rules.  For example, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would allow for congressional oversight of regulations with an economic impact of $100 million or more.

At the same time, GOP lawmakers are pressing bills that increase OIRA’s authority to imposed cost-benefit controls on agencies and expand the office’s jurisdiction to include independent agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Public Citizen argues for more restrictions on OIRA, not greater authority. The report calls upon Congress to approve legislation requiring OIRA to disclose the substance of the changes they make to draft and final rules.

The group also calls for binding deadlines that would limit the time OIRA can take to review regulations. 

"Reforms are badly needed to address the little to no transparency at OIRA and the runaway delays in reviewing rules, not reforms to give more authority without any accountability," Narang said.