Barack Obama, Mr. Deregulation?

In today’s much talked-of Wall Street Journal op-ed, President Obama reaches for common ground with critics of excessive government regulation – not a constituency he’s had much time for in the past. He announced an executive order requiring agencies to review existing regulation for outdated or unwise rules deserving of being struck from the books. That drew measured praise from organized business groups, something the President has not had much of lately.

Many left partisans are aghast, just as they were when Bill Clinton dashed for the political center after his own mid-term electoral “shellacking.” Salon complains that Obama’s op-ed “reads like an apology to the business community,” while Rena Steinzor fears the move signals a decline in influence for the administration’s regulatory ultras, such as Margaret Hamburg (FDA), Lisa Jackson (EPA), and David Michaels (OSHA).

Environmental law expert Jonathan Adler thinks the new executive order might do some good:

The Executive Order is here. It reaffirms the basic principles outlined in President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866, issued in September 1993, and continues to require agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules. As noted in the President’s op-ed, it also requires agencies to engage in “retrospective analysis” of existing rules so as to accelerate the pace at which outdated regulations are revoked. Specifically, it requires all agencies to develop a plan for such retrospective review within 120 days. If the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs ensures such reviews are meaningful, this could be a significant and positive step.

That’s a big “if.” Over the past two years, OIRA has not restrained its administration colleagues from making 2010 by far the biggest year for new regulatory burdens in memory (Heritage helpfully assembles details.) The most burdensome new rules are not from the best-known areas of new legislation, such as ObamaCare and financial reform, but from the environmental area. That makes it especially disturbing that, as Ted Frank points out, the President’s op-ed “singles out the top-down and economically inefficient fuel-economy regulation as a good one.”

So what does Obama see as an example of an excessive regulation needing repeal? The example he offers is the inclusion of the sweetener saccharin in the category of hazardous waste. Really? Saccharin as hazardous waste? Amid dozens of high-stakes, much-studied regulatory controversies, the only one he could come up with is one that – with all due respect to the people who make the little pink packets – is of hardly any significance to the wider economy, and not much more as a matter of principle?

Even this administration could have made better deregulatory boasts than that. For example, in a fit of sense, the Obama Justice Department a while back adopted regulations specifying that the Americans with Disabilities Act should no longer (as of this March) be interpreted to require restaurants, theaters and other Main Street businesses to admit patrons’ non-canine “service animals” such as monkeys, goats, snakes and spiders.

But it was almost as if his point was to pick a regulation so minor that no one cared much about it one way or the other. Had the President’s speechwriters been looking for an example of a hazardous-substance rule that would actually get people talking about regulatory overreach, they might have picked EPA’s dairy-spill regulations, which (in the words of one report) “treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans….” That one does have big and widespread economic costs.

Whoops – not a good example. That one’s not being repealed – EPA at last report intended to go forward with it. Can we really assume anything much is changing here besides the atmospherics?