Obama's Next Regulatory Czar

by Rena Steinzor

April 26, 2013

A few months ago, I urged the Obama Administration to view the nomination of a second-term Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) as an opportunity to fundamentally change the role that the office plays in the regulatory system. Dozens of important rules got stuck at OIRA in the year before the presidential elections and are still languishing. House Republicans continue their blistering and unsubstantiated attacks on the agencies, doing everything they can to cut their budgets beyond the bone, while the Obama Administration does nothing to rebut these tirades. And most agencies at the federal, state, and local levels are on life support, unable to prevent, much less mitigate a series of deadly fiascos. As just two very recent examples: consider  the explosion at a West Texas fertilizer factory that claimed 15 lives several days ago, catching emergency response crews at their most vulnerable, and yesterday’s front page story in the Washington Post about a rule that would gravely endanger worker and consumer safety at poultry processing plants. The job of the next “regulatory czar” won’t be easy unless he conceives of it as a continuation of the first Obama term’s “rule busting” that placates dangerous industries at the expense of public health.

Late yesterday, President Obama announced the nomination of Howard Shelanski, a current Federal Trade Commission official (FTC), to be the agent of change that OIRA so desperately needs. We'll certainly take a close look at his record in the days ahead, but one thing is certain: The Senate will need to conduct a thorough and searching confirmation process, one aimed at ensuring that OIRA stops being the place where badly needed safeguards for health, safety and the environment go to die.

Dr. Shelanski has spent his career working in the arenas of antitrust and telecommunications, two specialties far removed from the core of OIRA oversight that is most controversial. Hopefully, this background means he will approach health and safety issues with an open mind. On the other hand, Dr. Shelanski is also listed as an “expert” in the Mercatus Center’s Technology Policy Program. (His Mercatus Center bio is here.) The Mercatus Center is an industry-funded think tank and is well known for strongly advocating for anti-regulatory policies, indicating that in his new position, he must work especially hard to consider divergent views.[*]

Dr. Shelanski’s nomination will come before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. The members of that committee must take that opportunity to ask him tough questions. For example, as OIRA Administrator, will Dr. Shelanski see it as job to advance the public interest or to appease regulated industries? Who does Dr. Shelanski think should be in charge of the substance of EPA’s regulatory decision-making: the EPA Administrator or the OIRA Administrator? When it comes to agency decision-making, will OIRA continue to insist on substituting biased cost-benefit analyses for the impact analyses specified in statute? Will Dr. Shelanski abide by the transparency requirements imposed on OIRA by Executive Order 12866? Will he encourage agencies to follow the Order’s transparency requirements as well? Finally, will Dr. Shelanski respect the clear 90-day time limits that Executive Order 12866 places on regulatory review?

We look forward to meeting Dr. Shelanski and doing our best to persuade him that a fundamental course correction at OIRA is vital. Without one, there will be more grim funeral services honoring lives lost unnecessarily in industrial catastrophes that escape a badly shredded safety net.

*UPDATE: Shortly after this was posted, the Mercatus Center removed Shelanski's name from its list of experts. In a post on April 30, Steinzor noted the disappearance. A few hours after this was posted, Benjamin Goad of The Hill asked a Mercatus spokesperson, Leigh Harrington, to explain the disappearance. Harrington said that Shelanski's name had been incorrectly added to the Mercatus website's list of Technology Experts.  According to Goad's article, Harrington maintained that (quoting the article) "Shelanski should have been listed among the ranks of speakers who have participated in Mercatus programs, but was 'incorrectly categorized' as an expert. 'We fixed the error once it was pointed out to us,' Harrington said."

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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