by CPR Member Scholars Robert Glicksman, Amy Sinden, and Rena Steinzor; CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, CPR Policy Analysts James Goodwin and Michael Patoka
Over the next four years, the nation will face a daunting to-do list of public health, safety, and environmental challenges. From the myriad toxic chemicals that endanger children’s health to the threat of imported food tainted with salmonella, botulism, or other contaminants showing up on grocery store shelves; from the hazardous conditions in which some of this country’s most vulnerable workers must toil to the seemingly intractable epidemic of asthma that continues to afflict millions of U.S. youth—the problems are severe and demand effective and timely public policy solutions. Of course, at the very top of the to-do list is mitigating and adapting to climate change, a challenge that, in terms of magnitude and complexity, is unlike any the nation has faced before.
If progress is to be made on these challenges, the Executive Branch must take the lead. Despite Congress’s historically low public approval ratings, the recent elections left the balance of power in Congress changed only around the edges. Anti-regulation conservatives retain a majority in the House of Representatives and enough votes to slow down or block practically any bill they choose in the Senate. A legislative response to any of the urgent public health, safety, and environmental challenges is unlikely to appear on the horizon any time soon.
President Barack Obama has broad authority over the Executive Branch’s various regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Existing statutes authorize these agencies and the White House itself to address the greatest public, health, and safety challenges. So if progress is to be made, President Obama will need to unleash this potential by making full use of his authority to manage agency activities by issuing Executive Orders. He can use these orders to direct the agencies to focus on high priority regulatory initiatives and to streamline the processes by which they carry out their statutory missions.
This CPR Issue Alert recommends seven Executive Orders for the second term of the Obama Administration, all of which are directed at addressing critical public health, safety, and environmental challenges. Each Order directs government agencies to take specific steps to create meaningful new safeguards for people and the environment. Adopting and successfully carrying out these recommendations would help to cement President Obama’s legacy as a strong defender of public health, safety, and the environment.
Executive Order to Take Action on Climate Change Mitigation. This Order would set a detailed regulatory agenda directing the EPA to fulfill its obligations under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources. The Order would instruct the EPA to finalize its proposed standards for new or modified power plants and oil refineries, and most crucially, to develop standards for a variety of existing sources—all within stated deadlines that would signal the Administration’s commitment to timely, unimpeded progress.
Executive Order to Prioritize and Coordinate Planning for Climate Change Adaptation. This Order would require agencies to consider how climate change will affect their proposed and ongoing activities and to design their actions in ways that ease, rather than exacerbate, the challenges faced by communities and ecosystems. So, for example, agencies involved in setting policy for coastal development, including federal flood insurance, should develop new rules that discourage building in areas likely to be overcome by sea-level rise. Agencies concerned with ecosystem preservation should consider whether moving species north could protect them as temperatures increase.
Executive Order to Avoid Dangerous Imports. This Order would create a Cabinet-level Working Group to address the cross-cutting problems posed by imported foods, drugs, and consumer products, focusing primarily on ways to hold importers accountable for verifying the safety of their suppliers’ products and to expand enforcement authority over foreign companies. Under the Order, the Working Group would also study the value and feasibility of other options, such as requiring agencies to pre-approve the equivalence of foreign safety systems, addressing the obstacles to reform presented by trade agreements, and improving coordination among the agencies.
Executive Order to Protect the Health and Safety of Children and Future Generations. This Order would charge an interagency Task Force with developing and carrying out an affirmative agenda of coordinated regulatory actions to address high priority threats to the health and safety of children and future generations. The agenda setting process would be iterative, and the first iteration would address children’s workplace health and safety, asthma, toxic chemicals, and climate change.
Executive Order to Protect Contingent Workers. This Order would tailor OSHA’s existing enforcement and voluntary consultation programs to better account for the unique occupational safety and health challenges that contingent workers face. Contingent workers are a growing subset of the labor force, and include, for example, construction and farming day laborers, warehouse laborers hired through staffing agencies, and hotel housekeepers supplied by temp firms. Though “contingent work” is not easily defined, from a worker’s perspective, the most salient characteristic of contingent work is the absence of an express or implied contract for long-term employment. The Order would also establish an affirmative regulatory agenda to protect contingent workers against musculoskeletal injuries and expand OSHA’s cooperation efforts with the foreign consulates for countries that have large numbers of their nationals employed as contingent workers in the United States.
Executive Order to Reform OIRA’s Role in the Regulatory System. This Order would reorient OIRA’s role in the regulatory system so that it is aimed toward working proactively with agencies to help them achieve their statutory missions of protecting public health, safety, and the environment. This Order would rescind requirements for cost-benefit analysis, eschew review of minor rule makings, improve transparency, and charge OIRA with addressing the problem of regulatory delay.
Executive Order to Restore the SBA Office of Advocacy’s Focus on Small Businesses. This Order would direct the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Advocacy to focus its rulemaking interventions so that they help truly small businesses—those with 20 or fewer employees—and to assist these truly small businesses participate more effectively in the rulemaking process. This Order would also revoke an existing Executive Order that directs the Office of Advocacy to work closely with OIRA.
Many of these recommended Executive Orders focus on developing and implementing new regulations, and President Obama can ensure their success by appointing an Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) who is committed to protecting public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. The OIRA Administrator is often referred to as the “regulatory czar,” and, as that name suggests, he or she has considerable influence over the degree to which agencies are able to issue new rules in a timely and effective manner. In the past, OIRA Administrators have operated as impediments to regulatory progress, pushing to block, delay, and dilute countless safeguards.
Read CPR Issue Alert: Protecting People and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven New Executive Orders for President Obama’s Second Term.