While the Vice President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief was shuffling off to Buffalo yesterday, a former Environmental Protection Agency staffer was busy polishing a draft study of what the Office of Management and Budget, the task force's sidekick and alter ego, actually did with some key EPA rules over the past 2 1/2 years.
The chief conclusion reached by Erik Olson, now a University of Virginia Law School student, will hardly surprise those in Congress and the bureaucracy who follow regulatory reform issues. President Reagan's February, 1981, executive order on regulatory review, Olson argues, gave OMB a "de facto veto power" used at times to block environmental rules objectionable to industry.
Olson determined that the OMB has bottled up three new air pollution rules while the legal deadline for their publication passed, reviewed a proposed court settlement between the EPA and an environmental group, and got involved in the technical discussions that were supposed to form the basis for changes in a major air pollution standard.
In addition, the OMB granted blanket waivers of requirements for economic analysis of some EPA rule changes, regardless of cost, if the changes--like exemptions from pesticide rules--relaxed the burden on industry.
The draft of Olson's 150-page article represents one of the most current and thorough examinations of the OMB review process, the cornerstone of the Reagan administration's deregulatory initiative. While Olson's anti-OMB bent is evident from the outset, he offers a relatively benign appraisal of the OMB's overall role.
"Although OMB is indeed a 'tough kid,' its experience with the executive order demonstrates that the office is neither omnipotent or prodigal in the use of its powers . . . . That OMB is not prodigal . . . is illustrated by the fact that it only returned 31 EPA regulations out of the 1,074 EPA rules reviewed . . . .When OMB does bring its power to bear, however, it is often very influential.
"OMB's power to return rules may profitably be analogized to the president's power to veto legislation . . . . The veto power is probably more important in a day-to-day sense simply as a threat looming on the horizon, rather than in its actual exercise."
Olson agreed to let OMB official Robert Bedell, deputy administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, see a copy of the study. Not surprisingly, Bedell found much to criticize, particularly Olson's use of interviews with unidentified OMB and EPA sources as reference material.
Olson did have at least eight anonymous interviews, but he also did voluminous research with most of the available documentary material on the OMB review, from the OMB's reports to the lengthy submissions that the OMB and the EPA recently made to the House Judiciary subcommittee on administrative law, which is considering this year's version of regulatory reform legislation.
Bedell also quarreled with some of Olson's claims, particularly the contention that the OMB tends to exempt rules from review if they relax, rather than increase, the burden on industry. Olson cited OMB reports as the basis for his conclusion, but Bedell said yesterday, "That is simply not the case."
Bedell also criticized the report's factual conclusions as "largely impressionistic as opposed to factual . . . . When you're dealing with the length of time a particular review took, the report doesn't explain whether it was time well-spent, or whose clock it was running on--the OMB's or the agency's."
While Bedell would not agree that any rules were delayed past their legal deadlines, he said that in the case of one rule mentioned in the report the EPA had been responsible for some of the delay by taking weeks to respond to the OMB's requests for information.