Obama Administration Weighing Rules to Keep or Repeal

On May 18, the Obama administration is expected to take the next step in its process for reviewing federal regulations. Agencies and the White House sit at an important crossroads: will they defend existing regulatory safeguards or weaken rules in an attempt to appease special interests?

Federal agencies are to submit to the White House by May 18 their preliminary plans for reviewing existing regulations. President Obama instructed agencies to develop the plans in a Jan. 18 executive order. Agencies are to make their plans public within two weeks.

Both defenders and critics of regulation are anxiously awaiting the plans. The plans, which are likely to differ from agency to agency, may provide information on which rules, if any, agencies plan to target for reform or repeal, thereby drawing the battle lines for upcoming debates over certain safeguards. The plans are also expected to propose an ongoing process agencies will use to evaluate existing rules now and in the future.

Obama indicated May 12 that his administration will likely eliminate some federal requirements. "We're actually looking through the entire Federal Register, which is where they keep all the regulations, and we're going through them and seeing what are some of these old laws that don't make sense anymore," Obama said at a town hall event televised on the CBS Early Show. He added that the administration is looking at "the regulations or paperwork burdens that we can eliminate while still making sure that we're getting the job done." However, Obama also called much of the criticism of regulation "overstated."

Criticism of regulation has come from all over Washington in recent months. Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have accused agencies of setting new health, safety, and environmental standards without adequately considering the rules' impacts on regulated industries. They have said that regulations hurt specific industries and slow job growth, even though the body of research on the subject shows that regulations actually help on an economy-wide basis.

Businesses have been lobbying the administration to eliminate critical protections. The Business Roundtable, a coalition of top corporate executives, has submitted to the White House two lists of proposed and existing regulations that the group wants withdrawn. The second list, sent to Obama in April, is dominated by requests to eliminate environmental protections for clean air, clean water, and safe oil drilling practices, among others. The letter also emphasizes the group's desire to shape implementation of the landmark health care reform law.

Obama has articulated his views on regulation cautiously. He has at times reinforced conservative rhetoric by casting federal requirements as a burden on businesses but has also spoken of the importance of health and safety standards. In a Jan. 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed that announced his executive order, Obama wrote about the need for a "balance" between the costs of regulation and their benefits to society. One week later in his State of the Union address, Obama said, "When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people."

The "look-back" plans agencies are required to submit will provide another clue to the administration's posture toward regulation. Observers will also look to see whether the plans contain any specific rules to be targeted and whether those rules are also on the hit lists compiled by industry, such as the one submitted by the Business Roundtable.

Industry lobbyists have not limited their demands to looking back at existing rules; they have also targeted new and proposed rules for delay or outright elimination. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced May 16 that it would delay "indefinitely" the implementation of a new boiler and incinerator standard that was designed to reduce toxic air pollution and prevent thousands of heart attacks and asthma attacks. According to the Associated Press, EPA made the move "in response to a request from industry groups."

After making their look-back plans public, agencies are required to collect public input, according to a memo issued by White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein. The Sunstein memo requires that agencies make their plans final between July 18 and August 6.

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