In their 2012 platform, Democrats celebrate new regulations they've put in place to protect consumers, children and workers. At the same time, they also boast of how few regulations the Obama administration has approved overall.
"That there’s no question that some regulations are outdated, unnecessary, or too costly..." the platform says. "That's why [President Obama] has approved fewer regulations in the first three years of his presidency than his Republican predecessor did in his."
The claim is true when you look at the total number of regulations that the Obama administration has approved, according to OMB Watch's evaluation of the administration's regulatory reports. But as of July, Obama has passed more "economically significant" regulations — those with "an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy...productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety" — than either Clinton or Bush did in a single term. (My colleague Josh Hicks has a more detailed comparison of Obama and Bush's regulatory policy here.)
The discrepancy speaks to the fact that the sheer number of regulations that a president approves doesn't tell the full story. "Measuring regulations by simply the number of regulations is not simply a useful metric," says Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation. "One regulation could have many more components than another regulation. It's like comparing containers without being able to see what inside them."
Instead, the platform's boast about approving fewer regulations reflects the larger push by the Obama administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to use more rigorous cost-benefit analysis to evaluate new regulations and streamline and roll back old ones that are deemed inefficient or unnecessary. According to the platform, the administration's push to "look back" at old regulations "will save at least $10 billion over five years, and will eliminate tens of millions of hours in annual paperwork burdens."
And Schuman believes Obama has been more focused overall on the net benefits of regulation, rather than simply their sheer cost to businesses. The Democratic platform, for instance, claims that the regulations passed "have more than 25 times the net benefits" of Bush's regulations, even though there have been fewer of them. (I'm waiting to hear if there's been an independent verification of this figure.)
Republicans, in fact, generally agree that the cost-benefit evaluation of regulations is a good thing, and their own platform calls for a mandatory regulatory lookback, albeit a much stronger version that would automatically attach a sunset clause to regulations. But not everyone is thrilled with Obama's approach to regulations: In recent months, Obama's regulatory approval process has slowed down, irritating progressive advocates, and they're not pleased with the big focus on looking at old regulations. "Too much looking back takes resources away from looking forward," says Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy for OMB Watch.