Three years ago, the regulatory overseers at the new Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget invited suggestions on which federal rules needed some work -- a tuneup, elimination, or maybe a new rule altogether. The effort was directed by Congress, which wanted the OMB to report to it annually on the costs and benefits of regulation and send along an inventory of ineffective or inefficient rules that should be reformed or killed.
Business constituencies viewed this as a chance to push for quick elimination of some particularly bothersome rules, or at least a serious review of them. Pro-regulatory forces, leery of the whole process, put their two cents in, too, though their list was much shorter.
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The results: OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received 71 nominations for rules to review in 2001, 316 in 2002, and 189 in 2004 (OIRA did not solicit in 2003).
Now, some of the business groups say they are frustrated that they cannot keep track of what has happened to their suggestions. They had hoped for a more thorough housecleaning as well as real-time reports on the OMB Web site to track the progress of their nominations.
"The flaw is transparency and not keeping people up to date," said William L. Kovacs, vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at a congressional hearing last month. OMB includes status reports on the nominations in its annual reports to Congress, but they have been criticized as dated and not detailed enough.
Kovacs said chamber members want to know whether suggestions actually resulted in rule changes, not simply an agency "action" like a proposal, which can take years, or reconsideration of an existing rule.
The chamber did an informal telephone survey, going back to the nominators of 45 rules that OMB categorized as "high priority." Kovacs said 70 percent of those contacted could not say what happened to their nominations.
"Many did not know what had been done with them and were, not surprisingly, frustrated with the entire process. This hardly instills confidence that regulatory reform is being taken seriously or will succeed," Kovacs said.
The hearing, before the House Government Reform subcommittee on energy policy, natural resources and regulatory affairs, was billed as a progress report on the Bush regulatory reform effort.
The subcommittee asked for -- but didn't get -- a chart from OIRA that would detail whether a nominated regulation had been accepted or rejected and the publication dates for any proposed or final rules. Pleading time constraints, John D. Graham, OIRA administrator, said much of that information would be included in the annual regulatory report it would submit to Congress at the end of December. Graham joked that "the recalcitrant spirit of the OMB staff" was holding up the chartmaking.