Let's just say they have never been friendly.
Public Citizen, one of the nation's leading consumer groups, and John Graham, the head of OMB's regulatory review apparatus, butted heads before the former Harvard professor took the top regulatory job at the Office of Management and Budget in 2001.
The consumer group whipped up a 150-page report on Graham, his history as director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, and the potential conflicts it thought he would have in his new job. Public Citizen made it clear he was not their choice for the below-the-radar, influential job that involves assuring that the major rules issued by the federal government pass muster.
Now, the two have locked horns again. Convinced that Graham is exerting extraordinary influence over the federal agency in charge of setting fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, the group has tried to document -- without much luck so far -- the early involvement that Graham has had in the process.
The group has asked OMB for all kinds of information under the Freedom of Information Act that it thinks would allow it to connect the dots to show that Graham has not only been reviewing regulations, but actively directing agency action on how to restructure the highly controversial fuel economy program. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a proposal in December 2003 asking for comments on "reforming" the program as it applies to light trucks, which include pickups and SUVs.
The corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, program has been around since the 1970s as a congressional response to oil shortages. Since 1990, the standard for passenger cars has been 27.5 miles per gallon. It is 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks, but will increase to 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007 -- its first increase in more than a decade.
Since the program's inception there has been tension between environmental and consumer groups, those who believe the standard should be much more stringent and those who favor the status quo. The argument against raising the standard has traditionally been that to meet it, car companies would be forced to produce smaller, lighter cars that are less safe than heavier vehicles.
This is a view that Graham took when he studied CAFE issues from 1988 to 1992. At that time, Graham's work was funded by the federal government and donations from the Big Three automakers.
"Now at OMB, he is asserting a profound influence over the outcome of the Bush administration's efforts on fuel economy regulations. Indeed, the agency's recent proposal regarding light truck fuel economy regulation is completely aligned with Graham's long held, yet inaccurate belief, that fuel economy regulation results in significant weight reduction," and thus less safe vehicles, Public Citizen said in a background memo.
That school of thought was aired, along with others, after the National Academy of Sciences proposed that regulators consider various attributes, including weight, in 2001 when it studied the effectiveness of the mileage standard.
The consumer group is worried that the Bush administration and Graham will favor a shift to a weight-based system, replacing the current system that has one fixed mileage standard for passenger cars and one for light trucks. Under a weight standard, heavier vehicles would have to meet a less stringent miles-per-gallon requirement.
Paul R. Portney, who was chairman of the NAS study group, said he did not sense that the administration was in any particular camp, but that it preferred no real action until after the election. "I had no sense there was a favored outcome they were angling toward," said Portney, who is also president of a think tank called Resources for the Future.
Public Citizen asked for the internal documents so it could gauge the involvement of Graham and other high-level Bush administration appointees in an interagency working group on CAFE reform formed after the NAS report was issued.
Traditionally, agencies write drafts of rules and then send them to OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for review. But the Bush administration has had "early involvement" in some important environmental rules, a practice that gives OMB influence at the draft stage of a rule without any required documentation of the discussions.
In response, OMB told Public Citizen the tab would be $27,000 to do the electronic excavation of its e-mail archives; many of the other documents were not legally available for release, OMB said.
After a series of administrative appeals, Public Citizen filed suit against OMB last month in federal court in the District, asking that the government make the records public at no cost.
Public Citizen sent the same request to the Department of Transportation and received telephone logs, meeting logs and calendars, some e-mail correspondence, and a few memos at no charge. The e-mails show Graham was involved as early as 2001 and wanted to meet with the safety agency officials in mid-2003 to go over the CAFE proposal.
Graham said he was chairman of the interagency group and heavily involved in the process, including making suggestions for the proposal -- though NHTSA wrote the actual document. "The Administration's CAFE reform process is aimed at saving fuel, saving lives in highway crashes, and protecting American jobs in vehicle manufacturing," Graham wrote in an e-mailed response to questions about the dispute. "Weight-based reforms are under consideration."
He said they have been used in Japan since 1996 and that the NAS concluded they could achieve more fuel conservation, more safety and more equitable competition among carmakers than the current program if designed properly.
Graham's active approach, though used to some degree by other administrations, troubles Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
"They aren't looking to improve fuel economy. They are looking to service Detroit. This was not put together by NHTSA and all of its experts digging into the facts and figures. Graham wanted to get in early and frame the policy before the agency could come forward with its proposal," she said.
Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA, vouched for the paternity of the proposal: It "originated with this agency. It's based on our own research and our own thinking."