May 10, 2012

New Executive Order Skewed Toward Placating Regulated Industries: Obama Administration Continues Retreat from Protection of Public Health, Worker and Consumer Safety, and the Environment

President Obama issued the latest salvo in the Administration's efforts to placate the business community this morning, in the form of a new Executive Order called “Identifying and Reducing Regulatory Burdens.”   The Order would expand and enhance the unfunded mandate that would require agencies to scour through the rule books, finding “excessive” rules that would save regulated companies big money. As I have written elsewhere in this space, the latest example of such an effort would jeopardize food safety by allowing huge poultry processors to self-inspect for salmonella, not incidentally making the lot of the workers who are already overburdened by workplace safety hazards close to intolerable.

The new order sugarcoats its regressive mandate by instructing agencies to seek “public comment”  on regulatory “look-backs,” which in practice does not mean comments from mom and pop, who are unlikely to spend their spare time on watching out for the manufacture of dangerous consumer products.  While nice in theory, this window dressing cannot obscure the fact that the process announced here is explicitly tilted in a one-way direction toward deregulation. The public comments could include calls to strengthen existing protections, and such strengthening might very well be good for the economy—as regulations often are, industry's "job-killing" rhetoric notwithstanding. Yet the order explicitly says that agencies are to prioritize “those initiatives that will produce significant quantifiable monetary savings or significant quantifiable reductions in paperwork burdens.” The White House is saying agencies should take all the public comment – but prioritize the de-regulation ideas.

The Administration has sought no new funding for agencies to re-examine existing rules. OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein has been questioned by reporters and concerned Members of Congress on how agencies can do this work without taking away from existing work to protect the public; he has repeatedly asserted that agencies will simply get the work done. This is nonsense. A check of the latest regulatory agendas shows agencies are behind on countless important rules to protect the public’s health and safety. The EPA, for example, recently delayed, again, a rule to limit mercury and other toxic pollutants from industrial boilers.

Going on a hunt for existing regulations to weaken cannot help these busy and under-resourced agencies in their efforts to adopt important new protections for the public as they become inundated in requests from regulated industries to scale back their efforts to protect public health and safety.  Having the White House pile on at this moment, when it has already effectively shut down efforts to promulgate long overdue rules to protect workers from silica, asthmatics from smog, and children from heavy agricultural machinery, is a sign that Mr. Sunstein and his staff are less interested in making sure that regulatory agencies are fulfilling their statutory obligation to protect Americans and the environment from a variety of possible harms, than they are in placating industry critics of the President.

Rena Steinzor, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Bio.

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