July 30, 2012
President Obama has been accused by Republicans of being a big-government regulator, particularly in energy and environmental issues.
But since the midterm elections that brought Republican control of the House of Representatives, Obama has taken several anti-regulatory steps that angered environmentalists and other supporters—from appointing Chicago businessman William Daley as White House chief of staff to signing an executive order designed to limit the number and burden of federal rules.
“Our economy is not a zero-sum game,” Obama wrote in January 2011. “Regulations do have costs.”
The crown jewels of Obama’s regulatory agenda are fuel-economy standards for new cars and light trucks sold in the United States, designed to produce an average of 31.4 miles per gallon by 2016. A second stage still under review would produce an average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. For the administration, it has three goals: cutting costs, pollution and dependence on foreign oil.
Other major administration regulations limit mercury emissions from new coal-fired power plants and combat salmonella poisoning from contaminated eggs. But liberals were incensed by the administration’s decision to pull back proposed smog standards that would have compelled local governments to reduce air pollution. The decision delays action until at least 2013.
The administration has dialed back other regulations as well, including one that would have banned children under 18 from performing many jobs on family farms and those under 16 from operating heavy equipment.
Stuck in review
Other rules remain hung up in a lengthy review process. A report last month by the watchdog group Public Citizen found nearly 80% of 159 rules subject to congressionally mandated deadlines were overdue. “We expect to see a slowdown in rulemaking between now and the election,” said Robert Weissman, the group’s president.
Such a trend would not be unusual. Obama’s immediate predecessors, Bush and Clinton, each finalized fewer rules in their reelection years than they had the previous three years. “This wouldn’t be the first administration up for reelection that shut the door on new regulations sometime during election year,” said Martin Durbin, senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute.
The two most controversial laws passed by the administration still have rules awaiting approval. A report this month by the law firm Davis Polk shows that of 398 rules required under the Dodd-Frank law overhauling the regulation of financial institutions, 140 already have missed deadlines.
Also pending is one of the most important provisions of Obama’s healthcare law, intended to define what “essential health benefits” must be covered by insurance plans. “That’s obviously got political ramifications,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of the health consumers group Families USA.
Among rules pending past their deadlines are:
- Four rules required under last year’s updated food-safety law. They include improved controls at food processing facilities, stricter standards on imported food and minimum requirements for handling produce.
- A Department of Labor regulation setting stricter controls for exposure to silica dust, which can cause lung damage in workers performing manual labor. The rule has been under review at the White House since Valentine's Day 2011.
- A rule to improve rear-view technology in vehicles, such as cameras or sensors. The rule was to be finalized by February 2011 but has been pending at the White House since November.
“I am very disappointed that that regulation was not already issued,” said Janette Fennell, president of the child safety group KidsAndCars.org. “They are seriously in the delay mode.”
In those cases and others, the administration says it just wants to get the rules right. In all, more than 150 rules are pending at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a typical workload.
“When a rule is not out, it’s typically the case that there’s some concern that involves law or policy or science that’s being worked through by specialists,” said Cass Sunstein, the director of the White House office.
Neither Obama’s supporters nor detractors are satisfied. “Make no mistake about it: People are dying because of this stuff. Smog causes heart problems, respiratory problems. It kills people,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who heads the Center for Progressive Reform, a health and environmental advocacy group.
“The rhetoric has changed, and it’s changed significantly,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “But it’s, ‘Watch what I do, not what I say,’ that’s the key to this.”
In the middle are several allies and experts on regulatory policy who say Obama never was the regulator-in-chief liberals loved or conservatives loathed.
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