Moving Forward on Public Health and Safety with Just the Stroke of the Pen? Yes, Obama Can

by Rena Steinzor

December 10, 2012

After the last of the applause lines has been delivered, and while the crowd that gathered for his historic second inauguration is still filing out of town, President Obama will once again sit at his desk in the Oval Office and begin the tough policy work that will define his second term in office and shape the legacy he will leave behind.

Among the many challenges he'll face over the next four years will be an urgent agenda of addressing critical threats to public health, safety, and the environment that the Administration let languish during the first term. But good luck to him if he decides to attack the problems with legislation. The election made the numbers in both chambers of Congress somewhat more favorable to the President's cause. But it'd take an earth-shattering event or at least another election to get protective legislation out of the House of Representatives, which vacillates between being sullen and defiant and will undoubtedly return to its anti-regulatory drum-beating as soon as the fiscal “crisis” is over.

So what's a President to do? Use every bit of executive power he can marshal, in this case, by directing the regulatory agencies to move with dispatch to regulate and enforce in a number of vital areas. In Protecting People and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven New Executive Orders for President Obama’s Second Term, released today, my colleagues and I at the Center for Progressive Reform explain how the President can take the first vital step by making full use of his authority to manage executive agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—by issuing a series of Executive Orders.

The Orders recommended in the CPR Issue Alert would address several pressing health, safety, and environmental challenges:

  • Climate change mitigation and adaptation;
  • Dangerous food, drug, and consumer product imports;
  • Threats to the health and safety of children and future generations; and
  • Hazardous working conditions for “contingent workers” (i.e., a growing portion of the U.S. labor force that encompasses workers who are not employed on any kind of long-term contractual basis).

Each of these recommended Orders would direct government agencies to take specific steps to create meaningful new safeguards for people and the environment.

In addition, two of the Orders would reorient the roles of key players in the regulatory process: the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), home of the so-called "regulatory czar," and the Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy. The OIRA order would direct the office to focus its energies on helping help agencies carry out their statutory mission of helping people and the environment, and to do it in a more timely and effective fashion. The SBA order would direct the Office of Advocacy, which now functions as something of a government-funded lobbying shop for the Chamber of Commerce and other big business interests, to focus its work on genuinely small business.

These recommended Orders do not create new legal authorities, but instead seek to make the most of the existing legal authorities that the President has at his disposal. Among their most important characteristics is for the President to put the people who work for him on deadlines, so that they do not fritter away crucial time in a second term that will go by with lightning speed. The need for deadlines and rapid and efficient work toward critical goals is underscored by the backlog of problems pushed aside during the crazy days of election season, which this year, like Christmas, started very early.

Some of the Orders direct agencies to coordinate their activities and marshal their limited resources to carry out high priority regulatory actions. For example, the Executive Order on climate change mitigation directs the EPA to develop and carry out a coordinated and comprehensive regulatory agenda using its existing authorities under the Clean Air Act to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources. Other recommended Orders seek to streamline the process by which agencies develop new safeguards so that they can be issued more quickly. For example, the Executive Order on reforming OIRA’s role in the rulemaking process directs OIRA to help identify the causes of excessive regulatory delay—there's plenty of it, some of it traceable to OIRA itself—and to work with agencies to develop solutions that would expedite pending rulemakings.

Understanding what Executive Orders can do is important because, to make progress on new safeguards, the Obama Administration will need to make the best use of its existing legal authorities. As our proposals demonstrate, the President doesn’t need to wait fruitlessly on the sidelines for Congress before taking meaningful action to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

Needless to say, the American people and our environment face significant threats, and President Obama finds himself in some pretty tough circumstances—a sputtering economy, seemingly intractable political gridlock, costly wars, etc.—in which to try to make headway on addressing those threats. By adopting and successfully implementing the seven Executive Orders we recommend, the Obama Administration can deliver real, tangible benefits that will improve the quality of all Americans’ lives. These successes would help to cement President Obama’s legacy as a strong defender of public health, safety, and the environment.

The CPR Issue Alert Protecting People and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven New Executive Orders for President Obama’s Second Term was written by CPR Member Scholars Robert Glicksman, Amy Sinden, and Rena Steinzor and CPR Policy Analysts Matthew Shudtz, James Goodwin, and Michael Patoka.

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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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