Obama’s ‘Path to Progress’ Looking Forward: Much to Do and Little Time to Do It

by James Goodwin

December 02, 2015

In a post last week, I noted that, over the last year, the Obama Administration has finalized all or part of several of the 13 regulatory actions highlighted in a 2014 Center for Progressive Reform report challenging the President to focus renewed energy during the remainder of his term on securing critical new protections for people and the environment. But the President’s to-do list isn’t finished, and for the remaining regulatory actions on the list, progress has been modest or, in some cases, apparently non-existent.  Each of these regulatory actions, if completed, would likewise contribute to President Obama’s increasingly impressive body of work on public safeguards, which when taken as a whole is making our air and water healthier, our homes and workplaces safer, and our environment better protected against irreversible degradation.  In contrast, to leave this work unfinished would be—to borrow a sports cliché—the equivalent of leaving points out on the field. 

The good news is that, the final bell has not yet rung for President Obama.  He still has the better part of a year to get several key remaining items on his regulatory agenda accomplished.  It won’t be easy:  Time is short, and a lot of work will be involved.   Nevertheless, finalizing these regulatory actions is fundamentally doable.  The only thing that can really stop Obama from getting them across the finish line is Obama himself.

Over the next several months, the Obama Administration could and should choose to commit its resources to completing several important last steps along the Path to Progress. To be clear, there is no indication that it plans to on a few of these regulatory actions; however, that is not to say that it couldn’t, if the President put his foot on the gas, as well he should. Here are the four regulatory efforts, all badly needed and doable in the time remaining (though, as noted below, three of these final rules are looking unlikely):

  • When it comes to protecting worker health and safety, the Obama Administration has unquestionably been a colossal disappointment.  No single completed regulatory action could make up for the Administration’s failure in this area.  That said, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), after quite literally decades of inexplicable and unforgiveable delays, is now on the verge of releasing its final silica rule, which would be the first (and likely only) significant worker health and safety standard of President Obama’s tenure.  (For more on how President Obama has allowed the “regulatory reform” movement to block progress on worker health and safety standards, this post from our friend Celeste Monforton over The Pump Handle is a must read.)  According to recently released government records, the Obama Administration expects to finalize the rule in February.  Given that this rule is expected to prevent at least 700 premature deaths a year from fatal diseases caused by exposures to harmful levels of silica dust, this step cannot come soon enough.  Of course, this rule has been subject to repeated delays already, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the timeline for the final rule slip even more.  But, the good news is that the rule is almost certainly going to be finished before the end of the Obama Administration.
     
  • Keeping on the theme of worker health and safety, the Department of Labor in 2011 had a golden opportunity to protect the vulnerable child workers—some as young as 12 years of age—who toil for hours a day in farms across the United States, but the agency flinched.  Time still remains for the Department of Labor to begin making amends by re-launching a regulatory action aimed at establishing robust protections for child farm workers, but it would have to work quickly.  Unfortunately, the Department of Labor has provided no indication that it intends to develop this rule any time soon.  This is unfortunate because the rule would be a critical supplement to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recently finalized worker protection standard, which establishes new standards aimed at safeguarding young farmworkers against the hazards associated with agricultural pesticide use, by restricting the kinds of dangerous farm activities children could perform or the hazardous conditions they could work under.  Proposing and finalizing this rule in less than 12 months would no doubt be challenging.  But, the Obama Administration already laid groundwork when it developed its proposal the first time around, which would make this undertaking somewhat more manageable.
     
  • The EPA likewise faces a tough road ahead if it is to finish its national stormwater pollution control rule by the end of the Obama Administration.  This rulemaking is needed to address one of the last major unchecked sources of water pollution: urban and suburban runoff.  Unfortunately, it has been the subject of repeated delays (it was first listed in the Fall 2010 Regulatory Agenda), and the agency categorized the rule as a “long-term action” in the recently released Fall 2015 Regulatory Agenda.  This categorization suggests the agency has no plans to even issue a proposal within the next 12 months.  In all likelihood, the EPA has already completed a lot of the necessary preparations for issuing a proposal, and it could do it relatively quickly with adequate political support from the White House.  If this can be accomplished, a final rule issued before the end of the Obama Administration could be well within reach.
     
  • The EPA will also need to act quickly if it is to finish its long-delayed rulemaking to address water pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the next year.  As with stormwater, runoff from industrial scale agricultural operations including CAFOs remains a persistent source of impaired waters in the United States, contributing to the algal blooms that have fouled drinking water systems in Lake Erie and given rise to vast dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.  For more than a decade, the EPA has launched various rulemakings to address this water pollution source, only to abandon them in the face of strong industry opposition.  According to the most recent Regulatory Agenda, the agency has no current plans to develop a national CAFO water pollution standard.  Instead, the agency is focused on limiting pollution from CAFOs into the Chesapeake Bay.  Given its previous work on a national rule, the EPA would likely be able to complete a proposal and final rule by the end of next year.  It could be achieved with strong backing from President Obama, but even then the completion of such a complex rulemaking in such a short time period would require a huge lift.

The Obama Administration is now entering the homestretch and it can still get a lot accomplished on protecting people and the environment, if it wants to.

The constraints are daunting, and the rulemaking process has now become hobbled with several features aimed at making it slow and plodding.  However, as he demonstrated with the quick progress on the EPA’s two greenhouse gas national performance standards for fossil-fueled power plants, President Obama is able to get even complicated rulemakings through this procedural gauntlet in a short period of time when he puts his muscle behind the effort.  By applying this same level of commitment to the regulatory actions discussed above, President Obama has all the time he really needs to finish the remaining items on the Path to Progress.  But he needs to act quickly.  Time is running out fast.

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Also from James Goodwin

James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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