Regulators surge in numbers while overseers shrink

June 24, 2012

As the U.S. government’s regulatory bureaucracy has ballooned, one agency has been left behind: the office that oversees the regulators.

The number of people working in federal agencies with regulatory authority has doubled to about 292,000 under both Republican and Democratic administrations during the past 30 years. In the same period, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the White House bureau that reviews most major rules, has shrunk to 45 employees from 90, according to data compiled by researchers at George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis.

That means there are fewer people to carry out the office’s main task of examining agency regulations to make sure that cost-benefit analysis and other measures of a rule’s value are up to standard. President Obama has added duties, including an executive order last month putting OIRA in charge of overseeing “regulatory look-backs,” a government-wide process of eliminating outdated or redundant rules.

“I do not know how many more OIRA staffers are needed but they definitely need more than their diminished current size,” John Graham, who ran the office in the first years of the George W. Bush administration, said in an e-mail.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have complained that Obama administration regulations are stifling economic growth.

OIRA’s current administrator, Cass Sunstein, has said the White House has tried to minimize burdens on business and has issued regulations with $91 billion in net benefits in Obama’s first three years.

Sunstein says he is making do with his current staff. “We’d rather have 90 rather than 50, but the work is getting done,” he said last month at an American Bar Association conference in Washington.

Sunstein’s outlook may change when he leaves his post, said Susan Dudley, his predecessor in the last years of the Bush administration.

“I would have said the same thing when I was administrator,” Dudley said in an interview. “There’s a macho feeling about how hard we work, and I respect it. But now that I’m out, I think they need more macho people.”

Dudley, now director of the regulatory studies center at George Washington University, was co-author of a 2011 study of federal regulators’ budgets that compiled agency staffing totals. The count doesn’t cover offices that primarily perform entitlement, taxation or procurement work, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.

Workload considered

The Administrative Conference of the United States took OIRA’s workload into account in making recommendations for improving rule review, according to Paul Verkuil, chairman of the conference, an independent federal office that provides nonpartisan advice to improve agency procedures.

“We considered in our proposals for streamlining regulatory analysis solutions that would not add burdens to the staff of OIRA,’’ Verkuil said in an interview. The agency’s growing duties may increase the chance that “regulations that benefit the public don’t get through or are delayed,’’ Verkuil said.

Dudley said the number of employees of agencies with regulatory duties is an imprecise measure of a burden on OIRA, because only a fraction of them actually are involved in writing new rules.

Nonetheless, “I think the comparisons tell a valid story about the resources devoted to developing and implementing regulations versus the resources devoted to checking or constraining them,’’ Dudley said.

From 1999 through 2002, a period encompassing the last two years of the administration of President Bill Clinton and the first two years of George W. Bush, OIRA reviewed 389 “economically significant’’ regulations — those with an annual impact of more than $100 million, according to agency data at Reginfo.gov.

In a similar span at the end of the Bush administration and the first two years of Obama’s tenure, OIRA looked at 483 economically significant regulations.

Beyond the number of rules, the increasing burden results from the growing complexity of regulation, said Sally Katzen, the OIRA administrator under Clinton.

In 1977, a rule requiring cars either to have air bags or automatic seat belts was covered in 10 pages. In 1997, what Katzen termed “a tiny technical issue’’ involving the velocity at which air bags deployed required 16 pages.

“The difference is that we have required all of this analysis, all of this exploration of alternatives,’’ Katzen said.

OIRA also has to contend with its status as part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is under pressure to cut budgets.

“OMB is the guardian of the budget process and the tough guy that makes sure agencies are right-sized,’’ Katzen said. “It cannot then allow itself to grow, and that includes OIRA.’’

— Bloomberg Government

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