New regulations czar enters fray, promises to pare red tape

The Obama administration’s new regulatory czar is plunging straight into an array of fights over forthcoming high-profile federal rules.

Howard Shelanski has been quickly thrust into the mounting debate over efforts to curb climate change and has emerged as the face of the president’s initiative to cut away regulatory red tape.

In just his first month on the job, he has testified on behalf of the administration at multiple congressional hearings on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, met with business and labor groups to discuss new rules at the other and has started reaching out to the public to highlight the White House's efforts.

Shelanski, an economist and lawyer who previously worked at the Federal Trade Commission, was sworn in on July 10 as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a position sometimes called the regulatory czar.


The little known but influential office serves as a clearinghouse for regulations issued and proposed by federal agencies. OIRA has come under heavy scrutiny, both from industry groups who complain that the Obama administration is strangling businesses with “job-killing” regulations, and from public interest groups who blame it for delaying vital protections behind a veil of secrecy. 

Just a week into his tenure in the position, Shelanski was subjected to a grilling from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who lambasted the administration for establishing a new “social cost” of carbon emissions out of public view.

Shelanski argued that the metric, used to assign a monetary value to costs and benefits of proposed environmental rules, was based on widely available and peer-reviewed science, and was not “generated by a black box,” as skeptics had suggested.

Lawmakers, however, appeared unconvinced.

In the weeks since then, Shelanski has met with industry and labor advocates about a host of major new regulations that President Obama has labeled critical to his second-term agenda.

Among those are upcoming regulations for carbon emissions on new power plants, which were discussed at a July 23 White House meeting that Shelanski attended.

Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to set new rules for the greenhouse gas emissions in June, setting up what is sure to be a contentious fight between environmentalists and the energy industry.

Also in attendance at the meeting, according to the White House log, were other administration officials and executives from General Electric, which manufactures gas turbines among its many other activities.

On the following two days after that meeting, he participated in meetings with lobbyists, union officials and energy industry representatives to discuss the EPA’s disputed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which calls for blending biofuel with conventional gasoline.

Those meetings tend to be one-way conversations in which administration officials seldom divulge their opinions about rules under consideration. But a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute (API) said his organization was thankful that Shelanski showed up in person for a meeting that its representatives attended.

“API appreciates the opportunity to meet with Mr. Shelanski to discuss important energy issues like the need to repeal the RFS. We outlined the severe economic harm the ever increasing ethanol can cause consumers unless the administration acts now,” Carlton Carroll said in an email to The Hill.

Outside analysts say that sitting in on those meetings is an indicator that Shelanski is hitting the ground running.

It is especially important for Shelanski, they say, who comes from an agency outside the White House regulations office.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for someone coming into a new job and getting more of a sense of how things work,” said Celia Wexler, the senior Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Public interest groups also hope that Shelanski’s early interest is a sign that he will stick to his pledges to address longstanding frustration with the slow pace that rules can take through OIRA.

“I think at this point it’s too early to tell but he has recognized that the delay at OIRA is a serious problem, so we’re hoping that he is really committed to getting that moving and improving things at OIRA,” said Katie Greenhaw, a regulatory policy analyst with the Center for Effective Government.

During his nomination hearing in June, Shelanski pledged to ensure OIRA reviews occur “in a timely manner." He also said that transparency at the office was “critically important” to instituting effective regulations.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Shelanski’s approach to his job.

In his public appearances, Shelanski has been a vocal proponent of the president’s government-wide initiative to identify and reduce duplicative and overly burdensome rules.

Testifying late last month before the House Small Business Committee, he asserted that the initiative had turned up more than 500 regulatory reform ideas. A small fraction of the efforts already underway could save roughly $10 billion, he said.

On Thursday, he penned his first post on the White House blog in support of institutionalizing a government-wide regulatory “lookback.”

“Review of existing regulations is a crucial part of ensuring that protecting our nation’s health, safety, and environment remains consistent with creating jobs and prosperity,” he wrote.

“This Administration will expand and further institutionalize our regulatory lookback efforts to ensure that we continue to identify rules that need to be modified, streamlined, or repealed.”