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Three Quick Reactions to Yesterday’s House Oversight Committee Hearing on OIRA

Yesterday, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on “Challenges Facing OIRA in Ensuring Transparency and Effective Rulemaking” that featured as its only witness the head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Administrator Howard Shelanski.   Given that regulations are a huge source of consternation on the Hill, and the prominent role that OIRA plays in the federal regulatory apparatus, oversight hearings involving OIRA always have the potential for fireworks.  Despite this potential, these hearings—which take place once a year or so—tend to be pretty staid affairs with some mild grousing over a few key issues that are undoubtedly worthy of congressional attention—including the delays caused by OIRA’s unacceptably long rule reviews and OIRA’s semiannual tradition of issuing regulatory agendas behind schedule and/or at inconvenient times of the year (i.e., before major holidays).   Yesterday’s had all of this, but it had a few big surprises, too.

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CPR's Tom McGarity in Austin-American Statesman: Public Utility Commission rule would hurt consumers

The Texas Public Utility Commission, which sets electricity rates for the state and allows adjustments for fuel costs, has recently proposed amendments to its procedural rules that would limit consumer advocate input into potentially abusive rate changes.

Prior to any rate changes, the Commission holds public hearings where experts for the utility companies present highly technical reports drawn from their own data. Representatives of consumer groups can participate in these hearings, but they typically advance consumer interests by challenging the data and assumptions presented by the industry's experts.

The Commission has proposed to limit the amount of demands for information that consumer advocates can make of utility companies and the number of written question they can submit at public hearings.

In an op-ed for yesterday's Austin-American Statesman, CPR Scholar and University of Texas School of Law professor Tom McGarity lays out the potential problems for consumers if the rule goes forward. McGarity notes:

Most of us take for granted the large role that electricity plays in our daily lives until we receive our monthly electric bills. And most of us are unaware of the role that consumer advocates play in keeping those bills as low as possible. But we had best pay attention to a battle that is brewing between consumer advocates and the electric utility industry in the Texas Public Utility Commission, because it has serious implications for the rates that we will pay for electricity in the future.

Lawyers for the electric utility companies have persuaded the commission to propose amendments to its procedural rules that will seriously impede consumer advocates’ efforts to keep utility companies honest in most of its hearings related to electricity rates.

To read the full piece, click here. 

 

 

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Accounting for Job Loss: The consequences of doing so may not be what you'd expect

The Republicans’ choice for head of the CBO, Keith Hall, spent some time at a libertarian think tank reportedly funded by the Koch brothers, where he wrote about the effect of regulation on employment. Hall argued that regulations cause unemployment (include indirect effects because of price changes), and that the costs of unemployment should be included in regulatory cost-benefit analysis.

In principle, it seems right to include the special harms associated with job loss in cost-benefit analysis (not just for regulations but everything else too).  There’s all kinds of evidence that being fired or laid off is very damaging to people, and that’s a genuine cost — assuming that we can reliably quantify the effect.  As Hall has said:

“The immediate impact of job loss includes lost wages, job search costs, and retraining costs. Further, research shows that even after reemployment it can take as long as 20 years for workers to catch up on lost earnings, largely due to skill mismatches between the jobs lost and the new jobs created in the economy. These losses occur at different lengths of job tenure, in all major industries, and with workers of any age.”

As I said, this seems right in principle. But there are some important caveats.

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Bad Feds, Deadly Meds: Steinzor in USA Today

Last December, the Justice Department announced the indictiment of the owner/head pharmacist, the supervising pharmacist, and 12 others associated with the New England Compounding Compounding Center. The 131-count indictment, which included 25 charges of second-degree murder, grew out of a 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by contaminated drugs manufactured by the company. More than 750 patients were diagnosed with the illness as a result, and 64 patients in nine states died from it. ?

In a February 28, 2015, op-ed in USA Today, CPR President Rena Steinzor, author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, recounts the story and then takes a look at how policymakers reacted, and what came of their response. The tragedy laid bare a gaping hole in the nation's regulatory fabric, and rather than addressing it with straightforward legislation and resources to enforce it, Congress pass a "market-based" bill that allowed individual compounding pharmacies to decide for themselves if they'd like to be regulated or not. She writes:

In March 2013, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to fix the problem. Incredibly, though, it allowed compounding pharmacists to decide whether to volunteer to be regulated. Unless they register with the FDA, the agency has no way of knowing about them except through patient and medical professional complaints, a reporting method that in many cases comes far too late. The rationale? Market forces will take care of the problem because no hospital or treatment center will want to deal with an unregistered company.

 

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Winning Safer Workplaces: Responsible Contracting in Maryland

This week, the Maryland General Assembly will review new legislation that could help ensure safer workplaces in the state’s construction industry. The proposal, which is a type of “responsible contracting” legislation similar to other policies being tested out in states and municipalities across the country, would require companies that put in bids for work on public works projects in Maryland to attest that they have workplace health and safety programs and that they would implement the programs in construction projects done on the public dime.

It’s an important piece of legislation, given the dangers in the industry. As we noted in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual,

"Construction is one of the most hazardous industries for workers. Frequent injuries and deaths from falls, electrocutions, and striking objects impose unbearably high costs on individuals, families, and local economies. Public Citizen estimates that, between 2008 and 2010, fatal and nonfatal construction injuries cost the states of Maryland $713 million, Washington $762 million, and California $2.9 billion in medical services, lost productivity, administrative expenses, and lost quality of life. The firms responsible for many of these injuries and fatalities, and those with histories of citations for unsafe practices, continue to receive contracts from state and local governments."

Today, the House Economic Matters committee will hear testimony on a proposal to use the Maryland government’s vast purchasing power as a tool for promoting safer construction work practices. I submitted testimony in support of the bill because it is a smart way to ensure workers are being protected in a state where the AFL-CIO estimates it would take 108 years for occupational health and safety inspectors to visit every workplace.

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In North Carolina, Open Season on Poverty Advocates

Today I joined a group more than 40 environmental law professors and clinicians from institutions around the nation in a joint letter to the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors urging that they reject a recommendation to shutter the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, housed at the University of North Carolina Law School. That unfortunate recommendation arose from a special committee created by the board at the direction of the legislature to review all 237 of the state university system’s centers, in the wake of criticism of state anti-poverty efforts by the Center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol.

To be clear, the Center takes no money from the state, and hasn’t since 2009. It’s funded by private contributions. It’s being targeted not to save money, but because some in the legislature would rather not have to be reminded of poverty, and don’t have the stomach for criticism of their policies. And since Professor Nichol’s criticisms were a trigger for the special committee’s review, it’s no surprise that the committee has taken aim at the Center.

I’m not directly affiliated with the Center, but our Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at UNC Law has been looking to work with both the Poverty Center and the Carolina Law School’s Center for Civil Rights to try and address how to minimize the disparate impacts on the poor and minorities from climate change that are going to happen at the North Carolina coast.  But aside from my belief that the Poverty Center has much to contribute to advancement of environmental protection, I and my environmental colleagues around the country are writing because we find it hard to sit by while legislators seek to muzzle their critics in academia. Here’s what we say in the letter:

We represent a national group of environmental law professors and clinicians from over forty public and private law schools.  Our discipline has faced similar politically motivated criticisms in the past, and will likely do so again in the future.  We urge the North Carolina Board of Governors, and all regulators of institutes of higher education, to reject basing university decisions on the popularity of political positions.  We come to this position based on important experience in our environmental legal field.

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Winning Safer Workplaces: Watchdogging State Agencies

Our intrepid colleague Celeste Monforton, who writes at the Pump Handle blog, recently passed along a neat example of a tool that we wrote about in our Winning Safer Workplaces manual. Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on the state’s regulatory protections for meatpacking workers. As we noted in the Winning Safer Workplaces manual, state-level oversight of government regulation can be a valuable tool for advocates who are fighting for stronger workplace protections. The results of new audits can clarify what is working—and what is not working—about the regulatory system, giving advocates critical information that they might use in new campaigns. The audit process itself, by focusing outside attention on programs that may be insulated from regular or public oversight, can also have positive effects for the programs’ intended beneficiaries (here, workers).

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The Age of Greed: Toxic Chemical Control Is 'High Priority' Failure for Nation’s Government

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reiterated its conclusion that EPA’s regulation of toxic chemicals is in crisis, unable to deliver badly needed protection to the American people.  These benighted programs are among a couple of dozen of “high priority” failures that cause serious harm to public health, waste resources, or endanger national security, and Congress is giving the report red carpet treatment, with House and Senate hearings on the report scheduled the very day it was released. 

In auditor speak, GAO says that “[b]ecause EPA had not developed sufficient chemical assessment information under these programs to limit exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks, we added this issue to the High Risk List in 2009.”  At the time, then-Administrator Lisa Jackson took clear steps to rescue the program. Since then, very little progress has been made, largely because the Obama Administration has narrowed its focus to climate change, and a major overhaul of initiatives swamped by chemical industry nitpicking does not seem to be in the cards until at least 2017.

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Winning Safer Workplaces: The State-plan Switcheroo

In Kansas and Maryland, two states separated by geography and politics, Republican state lawmakers are touting plans that could seriously alter the institutions that workers in those states rely upon to keep them safe on the job.

Two weeks ago, Maryland Delegate (now State Senator) Andrew Serafini introduced a bill that would make drastic changes to the way the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency (MOSH) does its job. So drastic, in fact, that the feds would likely have to step in and take over the state’s program. The biggest problem with the bill is a requirement that the agency send employers a letter, warning them that MOSH inspectors are on the way. Tipping off employers is bad policy for an enforcement agency trying to regulate conditions that can be easily be disguised or altered. In many cases, it’s also a criminal act.

The bill has a few other features that likely wouldn’t sit well with the federal OSHA auditors, who annually review state-plan agencies’ policies and practices to ensure that they continue to operate programs that are at least as effective as what Fed-OSHA is doing in other states (not all states run their own state-plan programs). For example, the bill would prevent MOSH from issuing fines in a number of circumstances that would lead to citations in other states. Given the evidence that shows inspections and citations lead to safer workplaces, this kid-glove approach to enforcement puts workers at risk and creates a policy that is not as effective as the Fed-OSHA approach.

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New CPR Issue Alert: The Small Business Charade

Tomorrow, the House is set to vote on the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Improvements Act (SBRFIA), a piece of legislation that CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin has explained would “further entrench big businesses’ control over rulemaking institutions and procedures that are ostensibly intended to help small businesses participate more effectively in the development of new regulations.”

As Members of the House prepare for Thursday’s vote, CPR has something to add to their files: a new Issue Alert with details about how the Regulatory Flexibility Act is failing small businesses.  In The Small Business Charade: The Chemical Industry’s Stealth Campaign Against Public Health, CPR President Rena Steinzor, Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin, and I explain how the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other large trade associations manipulated the procedures outlined in the Regulatory Flexibility Act to protect their profits at the expense of the public interest—all while wasting taxpayers’ money and silencing legitimate small business input into the regulatory process. We take a close look at emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (h/t Center for Effective Government) and explore how ACC tried to manipulate OSHA’s ongoing efforts to better protect workers from respirable crystalline silica, a ubiquitous and under-regulated carcinogen.

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