Better Late Than Never: OIRA’s Meeting Logs Just Got a Lot More Transparent

by James Goodwin

April 09, 2014

This week the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—the obscure White House Office charged with reviewing and approving agencies’ regulations—took an important and much-appreciated step in the direction of greater transparency by updating and improving its electronic database of lobbying meetings records that the agency holds with outside groups concerning the rules undergoing review.  As detailed in a 2011 CPR report, corporate interests have long used OIRA as a court of last resort for seeking relief from regulatory requirements they find inconvenient; these lobbying meetings provide them with a powerful and secretive forum in which to push for substantive changes to critical agency safeguards that would ensure the public continues to bear the cost of their polluting activities.  With the improved database, the public, policymakers, and the media will be better able to track the efforts of corporate interests to exploit the OIRA review process to weaken or block regulatory protections.

Before the upgrade, OIRA docketed all its meetings in a barebones and often careless fashion on a separate section of its website.  As the 2011 CPR report explained, the meetings dockets suffered several serious flaws.  The meetings were not linked to the rule undergoing review that was the subject of the meeting, nor was there any standardized format for documenting what rule was the subject of the meeting.  Often, interested members of the public would have to consult a number of different sources to verify what rule was at issue in a given meeting.  To make matters worse, key meetings log data—including the attendees of the meeting and their affiliations—were often rife with typos and inaccurate or incomplete information.  These log data were also supposed to provide links to all documents presented at the meeting, but in some cases the links do not work.  Even when accurate, the meetings data were of limited utility because they were not presented in a searchable database.  If, for example, a member of the public wanted to see how many meetings took place with regard to a particular rule, he or she would have to assemble these data manually.  CPR sought to overcome this problem by creating its own searchable meeting database, which available here.

OIRA’s new meetings records database is designed to specifically address many of the complaints that were raised in the 2011 CPR Report regarding the old meetings docket.  It permits users to search for meetings according to several different search criteria, including Regulatory Identification Number, Stage of Rulemaking, Date, Agency, and Sub-Agencies within Agencies.  The database also has a calendar, which enables users to see how many lobbying meetings OIRA held on a particular date and the rule that was the subject of those meetings.  Whenever a draft rule begins review at OIRA it is docketed and provided a unique entry page that provides basic information about the draft rule and its pending review at OIRA (for example, here is the page for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft rule on “Petroleum Refinery Sector Risk and Technology Review and NSPS”).  This page now includes a link to another page with all of the records for lobbying meetings regarding that draft.  (See here for the lobby meetings records page for the EPA rule, which has been the subject of two meetings as of today).  Each rule’s unique entry in the semiannual regulatory agenda also contains a link to the lobby meetings records page for that rule.  (For example, see here for the EPA’s rule.)

It’s still too early to tell if the log data for individual lobbying meetings have improved.  I’ve run some independent searches on the attendees of meetings to verify the accuracy of the spelling of their names and to confirm their listed affiliations, and so far have not found any problems.  Given that the sample of meetings is still limited, it’s impossible to conclude whether OIRA has taken meaningful steps to improve the accuracy of these data (for example, by basing these data on data from the White House visitor logs, which are likely to be more accurate).  There are a few red flags suggesting that we may see the same problems in this new database.  For example, in one meeting on the EPA’s “Petroleum Refinery Sector Risk and Technology Review and NSPS” rule, one attendee—James Kim of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—is listed twice.  Another concern is that while the log for this meeting indicates that several attendees are affiliated with OMB, it does not specify whether these attendees are from OIRA or other offices within OMB.  Finally, the meeting log includes a link to a document that was presented at the meeting, but the link does not work properly.

At this point, some obvious limitations of OIRA’s new meetings records database are apparent.  First, it only includes meetings that take place after March 31, 2014.  To allow for users to conduct historical analyses, OIRA should endeavor to incorporate all the meetings records data it has collected on its old meetings docket.  Second, the database doesn’t permit users to conduct searches based on the affiliation of outside party attendees (e.g., the American Chemistry Council, the National Association of Home Builders, etc.), unlike with CPR’s database.  These kinds of searches would enable the public to see what corporate interests are most active in seeking to influence agency rulemakings behind OIRA’s closed doors, and are essential for ensuring rigorous oversight and accountability of the rulemaking process. OIRA should also modify its database to permit such searches.

OIRA is frequently faulted for its lack of transparency, and these kinds of improvements are long overdue.  In addition, to the 2011 CPR report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized OIRA’s lack of transparency in a series of reports dating back to 1996.   Last month, Michelle Sager, the Director of Strategic Issues at the GAO testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that the GAO set out a series of 12 recommendations for how OIRA could improve the transparency of its regulatory review process in reports that it published in 2003 and 2009, respectively.  (Director Sager’s testimony is available for download here.)  According to Director Sager’s testimony, OIRA has only implemented one of those recommendations so far.  That one recommendation, which was raised in the 2003 GAO report, was for OIRA to improve the transparency of its meeting dockets.  In other words, OIRA’s new meetings record database—while welcome—builds on a recommendation that OIRA had already implemented as far as the GAO is concerned. 

While overdue, OIRA’s improved meetings records database is still welcome and appreciated.  OIRA should treat this development as just the first step of many toward improving the transparency of its regulatory review process.  At a minimum, OIRA should commit to implementing the other transparency recommendations in the 2011 CPR Report, including the following:  making the results OIRA’s completed reviews more transparent (i.e., summarizing the changes that were made during the review and indication of which changes were made at the direction of OIRA); including in the rulemaking docket for a rule that has undergone review all written communications between OIRA staff and those of the rulemaking agency during the review; and ending the practice of “informal reviews.”  OIRA should also commit to implementing the other 11 recommendations from GAO.

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Also from James Goodwin

James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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