Searching for a Regulatory "Tsunami" in Calm Seas

calm sea

Has the Obama administration unleashed a regulatory "tsunami" as House and Senate Republicans charge? Has this administration issued more significant final rules than past administrations? Contrary to the rhetoric of the business community and its allies on Capitol Hill, hard research shows the answer is an unambiguous no.

To put Obama’s regulatory record in perspective, OMB Watch analyzed the number of final rules reviewed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) each year since 1992. The results of our analysis are shown in the chart below.

click to enlarge

OIRA reviews all significant rules, whether economically significant or otherwise, before they are finalized. Economically significant rules are those that are estimated to have an effect of $100 million or more on the economy. Not counting the large number of final rules in 1992 and 1993, the number of final and economically significant final rules has been relatively constant. When the rules are grouped by presidential term, the most rules were reviewed and approved during President Clinton’s first term. Under President Obama, OIRA has reviewed and approved fewer rules than in either of President Bush’s terms.

In fact, during the first term of the Clinton administration, agencies finalized almost twice as many rules as were finalized to date by the Obama administration. And during the first term of the Bush II administration, OIRA reviewed roughly a quarter more rules than the first three and half years of the Obama administration (see Chart 2). In 1992 alone, the last year of the Bush I administration, OIRA reviewed and finalized more than 1,200 rules. In comparison, during the entire three and half years of the Obama administration, OIRA has reviewed fewer than 1,100 final rules. The data also show that this year, OIRA has reviewed significantly fewer final rules than in prior years. Unless the pace picks up before the election – an unlikely event – Obama will regulate less, not more, this year.

click to enlarge

Since Obama took office, his administration has finalized 218 economically significant regulations. During his first term, Bush finalized 189. This 29-rule increase – representing a 12 percent increase in the number of economically significant rules finalized – is hardly a "regulatory tsunami." Moreover, the increase is probably due to inflation, since the definition of “economically significant” is a rule that has an impact of $100 million or more. This number has not been adjusted for inflation since centralized review by OIRA began in 1980, even though the costs of goods and services have increased over the past 30 years. Inflation may also explain why the Bush administration – which was openly hostile to many types of federal regulation – finalized more economically significant rules than were finalized during either term of the Clinton administration. The year-by-year figures in Chart 2 confirm the relatively gradual increase in major regulations being finalized.

Indeed, not only are the total number of rules finalized by Bush and Obama comparable, so too are the number of rules required by either statutory or judicial deadlines (see Chart 3). This is true despite the fact that the Bush administration was philosophically opposed – or so they claimed – to regulation.

click to enlarge

The number of significant rules being reviewed has been relatively constant for years. Our analysis suggests that Obama has been a relatively timid regulator, finalizing only a handful more rules than Bush. In fact, recent work by Public Citizen suggests that OIRA is taking longer to review rules than in the past, further reducing the number of standards being finalized. Actual data shows that there is no "regulatory tsunami"; rather, the tide of rulemaking under the Obama administration has been steady and predictable.

Image in teaser by flickr user Stephen Edgar - Netweb, used under a Creative Commons license.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its original publication date to correct information in Chart 3 and associated text on the number of economically significant final rules required by statutory or judicial deadlines in the Obama administration and second term of the Bush administration.

back to Blog