Is the White House delaying too many health and safety rules?

June 11, 2013

One of the most frequent complaints from progressive groups during the Obama era is that the White House has taken too long to finalize key regulations on everything from energy-efficiency standards to mine safety.


(Ricky Carioti-The Washington Post)

That argument got another push on Tuesday in a new report (pdf) from the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, a collection of health, labor, and consumer groups. The report argues that more than 120 proposed regulations have languished in the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), taking longer than they should to complete.

The regulations in question are wide-ranging: There's a safety rule on silica dust for miners. There's an extension of minimum-wage laws to home-care workers. There are new oversight standards for imported food. And there's a rule to require rear-view visibility technology so that people can see behind their cars and don't accidentally back over children. In some cases, these regulations have remained at OIRA for years.

The report suggests that business lobbying may be a factor in the delays. "Powerful industries that would be inconvenienced by new safeguards have often been able to stop them in their tracks in the rule-making process,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and a co-chair of the coalition that wrote the report.

The White House, however, says that it is simply taking time to craft the rules properly. "The Administration’s regulatory strategy maintains a balance between our obligation to protect the health, welfare, and safety of Americans and our commitment to promoting economic growth, job creation, competitiveness, and innovation," said spokeswoman Ari Isaacman Astles. "[The Office of Management and Budget] works as expeditiously as possible to review rules, and when it comes to complex rules, it is critical that we get them right."

To step back a bit, here's how the regulatory process is supposed to work: An agency like the Labor Department will craft a new safety rule on, say, silica dust for miners and conduct a cost-benefit analysis. That rule will then go to OIRA for review. Once that's complete, the draft is released for public comment. The rule then bounces back to the agency and again to OIRA for a second review. Like so:

By executive order, OIRA's reviews are typically meant take 90 days or less, but the Coalition on Sensible Safeguards notes that "in practice, reviews often take much longer." More than 70 rules have been sitting at OIRA for longer than 90 days. The silica dust rule, for example, hasn't moved since February 2011.

The coalition's report also complains that the review process isn't open to the public, and that "rules can be held at [OIRA] for long periods with no explanation." That raises concerns that the White House could be swayed by corporate lobbying, the report says. Here's how the coalition describes the delay over the silica dust rule:

One example is a rule that would offer construction and manufacturing workers protection from silica dust. Since the rule was sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review in February 2011, the office has hosted 11 meetings with outside groups to discuss the rule. Nine of those meetings were with industry groups that oppose the rule.

Some Democrats in Congress, including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) have also criticized the delay. "Key standards to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment have languished at OIRA, in some cases for years," the senators told the White House in a letter sent last week. "OIRA frequently holds onto rules without explaining its concerns, preventing agencies from taking steps to address them."

In response, Sylvia Burwell, the newly confirmed director of the Office of Management and Budget, (which includes OIRA), wrote to the senators that "it would be a priority of mine to make sure [the agency] was reviewing regulations in a timely manner." She noted that OIRA had recently finished work on several rules that had been under review for more than 200 days, including new standards on formaldehyde.

Still, critics say that the current White House would need to speed the review process up considerably to keep pace with its past administrations. Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, points to a recent analysis showing that OIRA took an average of 69 days to review "economically significant rules" in 2012, a longer wait than in any year since 1994. (The average review time for 2013 is up to 98 days.)

The coalition's report comes just before the Senate holds a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for Howard Shelanski, President Obama's nominee to head up OIRA. Progressive groups are urging senators to ask the nominee tougher questions about the regulatory delays.

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Neil Irwin | June 11, 2013