Obama as Reluctant Deregulator: Four Months Later

When President Obama, following his midterm “shellacking” at the polls, announced his belated conversion to the cause of regulatory relief, I was skeptical. I noted that, despite the reputation of OIRA chief Cass Sunstein as a brilliant scholar with an openness to cost-benefit analysis rare on the Left, the first two years of the Obama administration had been marked by a tremendous ramping up of regulatory burdens on the economy, both in areas of new legislation (ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank) and in new agency rulemakings gearing up from the “ultras” — ardently pro-regulatory appointees like Margaret Hamburg at FDA, Lisa Jackson at EPA, and David Michaels at OSHA. I also observed that in boasting of its deregulatory accomplishments, the administration chose an exceedingly minor example (saccharin’s reclassification as not being a hazardous waste) in which no one important seemed to have been pushing on the opposite side. That suggested that the Obama White House might lack the stomach to press deregulation when doing so might actually offend pro-regulation constituencies.

Yesterday the administration announced the results of its comprehensive review in which more than two dozen agencies looked at existing regulations to identify areas where burdens could be reduced [WaPo, AEI Enterprise, Wayne Crews/CEI]. As Cary Coglianese notes at the Penn Program on Regulation’s RegBlog,

[M]any of the initial rules agencies have proposed to put under the microscope seem underwhelming. Frequently they are what might be considered “paperwork” rules, with agencies hoping to find ways to streamline reporting and make more information available online. The Treasury Department, for example, plans to review an Internal Revenue Service regulation so as to correct instructions about where to file for a tax refund or credit. The Commerce Department’s plan identifies, among other things, the rule governing the “application number” and “filing date” for patents.

There’s nothing wrong with streamlining paperwork, of course, but it’s a cause that even “ultras” can get behind. Indeed, one of the largest line-item claims of savings comes from an OSHA plan “to finalize a proposed rule that would harmonize U.S. hazard classifications and labels with those used by other nations, which is expected to result in an annualized $585 million in estimated savings for employers.” As Coglianese notes, “few of the rules listed in the plans as targets for review are the salient regulatory issues of the day.” Tellingly, one of the most significant retreats on a regulatory issue in recent weeks — the EPA’s decision to pull back expensive new regulations on boiler emissions — is not boasted about, perhaps because the retreat is intended to be only temporary.

I do note with a ripple of “great minds think alike” satisfaction that Sunstein did advance, as one of his central examples of a new administration accomplishment, the EPA’s very belated recognition that spills of milk on dairy farms are not “oil spills” requiring elaborate containment and remediation measures. I had been writing about that one in this space for a while, and had specifically cited it in January as an example of the sort of craziness the Obamanauts should be trying to address if they want to be taken seriously on the issue of deregulation.