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White House issues new rules to cut bureaucratic red tape

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The Obama administration released final plans Tuesday to streamline the federal bu­reaucracy by eliminating hundreds of regulatory requirements across two dozen agencies, an overhaul that officials said could save $10 billion over five years.

Administration officials hailed the reforms, which came in response to President Obama’s January decree to cut red tape, as a way to spur job creation by freeing businesses from burdensome rules that hindered growth.

As if to underscore the density of the federal bureaucracy, the plans were outlined in a report spanning 800 pages, detailing the elimination or revision of more than 500 regulations. Yet the report did not address major new regulations that are being implemented to deal with the Wall Street meltdown and landmark health-care legislation. And White House officials were unwilling to speculate about how many jobs could be created by the effort.

The report was quickly criticized by business leaders, who said the administration did not go far enough, and consumer advocates, who feared the erosion of key health, safety and environmental protections.

The changes “will not have a material impact on the real regulatory burdens facing businesses today,” Bill Kovacs, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

But Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a non­profit lobbying group, said the White House appeared eager to curry political favor of big business at the expense of consumers.

“It’s worrisome because it suggests the White House is going to ease up on enforcement and slow down on health, safety and environmental protections,” Weissman said.

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, defended the effort to eliminate redundant and unnecessary rules by highlighting the potential cost savings.

The Transportation Department alone is planning to revise 100 regulations, including railroad industry rules that could save $340 million, Sunstein said. He added that consumers will benefit: The State Department is making it easier for low-risk tourists to get visas to the United States, and the Defense Department is revising rules to allow 60,000 contractors to be paid more quickly.

The savings are “a pretty big deal,” Sunstein said in a conference call with reporters. “But numbers do not tell the whole story. There are a number of initiatives that . . . will make a difference to people.”

Even as the Obama administration hailed the plans to streamline red tape, it has enacted new regulations. Several weeks ago, for example, the administration announced the first fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks and buses.

Sunstein said his office has directed agencies to consider the balance between “costs and benefits” when considering new rules.

“Every plan emphasizes that it is not a one-shot endeavor,” he said. “We have made an effort to create periodic reviews of rules and to change the culture and be open to public concerns.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called the new plans “underwhelming” and said Obama “seems reluctant to do everything in his power” to help business owners.

In the end, the White House was unable to please either the business leaders it was courting or progressives, who are “disappointed at the whole exercise,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the liberal think tank Center for Progressive Reform.

The reforms “fall far short of their obvious goal: to placate greedy and intemperate industry demands that major rules be cancelled,” Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland, wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “And they distress public interest advocates.”

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