1,700 Pages of Rules, Fewer Dead Trees

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

For U.S. rule-watchers who live in the digital world, the new searchable online version of the Bush administration's semi-annual regulatory agenda is an early holiday gift. For those who like to scoff at 1,500-page lists of documents, it's cause for Scrooge-like complaints.

In print, the agenda is slimmed down to a mere 483 pages in the Dec. 10 Federal Register. That compares with the 1,700-page online edition, which contains the administration's full list of proposed and expected health, safety and other rules.

The migration to http://www.reginfo.gov saves money and makes rulemaking more available to the public, administration officials said. Some experienced users including union watchdog Peg Seminario said the new agenda is a victory of style over substance.

"It's supposed to give the public notice of what's coming and what the agencies' priorities are," said Seminario, safety and health director of the AFL-CIO. "But it bears no semblance to reality."

Labeling a rule a priority doesn't mean it is one, she said. Some proposals are listed in the agenda for years. Some get stuck at the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major rules. Others disappear, as much of the Labor Department agenda did when the Bush administration took over and withdrew 24 pending rules.

The new online priority list makes it clear that the proposals "do not create a legal obligation" to meet the stated schedules for action, according to the introduction to the agenda. It adds that "dates are subject to change."

"This is the first step in getting what we think is a really integrated system," Susan Dudley, head of the regulatory review office at the OMB, said of the online agenda. A key advantage is that the new version is searchable by agency, year, topic and various characteristics of the rule.

Now you can search for a 2005 proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services to set standards for a sort of retirement home for chimpanzees used in federal research.

Or you can discover a recent rulemaking to determine whether passengers on small planes should get compensation when they are bumped off of a flight on which they have reservations.

Or check the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposal to regulate workplace exposure to crystalline silica, a dust that can cause serious respiratory disability or death. It was listed as a priority five years ago. The agency said it will complete a "detailed risk analysis" sometime next year.

It is an example of OSHA rules that "just keep slipping," Seminario said. "They kick the can down the road for another six months."

Until now, the Federal Register, the government's daily accounting of rules, printed the entire agenda in several bound volumes. It has been available online since 1995. Its search system, connected to the U.S. Government Printing Office, was challenging for some users.

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