Earlier this week, Axios and Greenwire ($) reported that international oil behemoth BP is bringing on a new lobbyist to work on "regulatory reform advocacy related to Federal energy and environmental rules," as described in the required lobbying disclosure statement. That in itself is hardly news. What makes this story remarkable is who the lobbyist is, or in this case, was. Nathan Frey, who appears to be the only partner with the lobbying firm Regulatory Strategies and Solutions Group, used to be on the staff at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Regular readers of this blog know by now that OIRA plays a powerful role in the regulatory system. A series of executive orders stretching back to the Reagan administration requires executive branch agencies to submit their biggest and most important rules to OIRA for centralized review. Agencies cannot proceed with proposing or finalizing these rules until OIRA has completed its review and granted its approval. Oftentimes, agencies must make extensive changes to their rules at the behest of OIRA during the review process. And those OIRA change requests often originate with complaints from regulated industries that enjoy unfettered and closed-door access to OIRA's inner sanctum, where they're able to exercise undue influence to defeat, weaken, or delay public safeguards they find inconvenient to their bottom lines.
Thanks to this powerful but largely under-the-radar role as the regulatory gatekeeper, OIRA has earned the moniker "the most powerful office you've never heard of."
Frey was one of those staffers at OIRA who used to interface with rulemaking agencies throughout the review process. From that position, he wielded great authority over the pending rules that crossed his desk. Significantly, OIRA meeting records reveal that Frey had worked on rules that would potentially be of interest to BP, including various Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules related to biofuels development and use.
Now, Frey has set out on his own, presumably to peddle his OIRA access and experience as a valuable lobbying asset. The home page of his firm prominently displays a photo of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which houses OIRA's offices. The website also boasts of the firm's "decades of experience working within the central hub of federal regulatory oversight, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs."
Frey isn't the only former OIRA staffer to move through the revolving door to become a lobbyist on behalf of powerful corporate interests. As noted in a post several months ago, another former OIRA staffer, Andrew Perraut, lobbies on behalf the tobacco industry, working to block new safeguards on the rapidly expanding e-cigarette industry. In particular, Perraut took to the pages of a trade publication aimed at convenience stores and gas stations, which represent a dominant segment of e-cigarette sellers, urging its members to avail themselves of the OIRA review process to attack a then-pending Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that would have subjected e-cigarettes to tougher regulations.
As I wrote at the time:
To underscore the importance of OIRA's lobbyist meetings, the publication also includes this quote from the former OIRA official: "'It's as important, if not more important, to be engaged during the period of White House review than it is to give comments.'" In other words, the former OIRA official is asserting that the OIRA review process has supplanted the Administrative Procedure Act's (APA) notice-and-comment process as the most important avenue for public engagement in the rulemaking process.
Like Frey, Perraut appears to be the only professional at his firm, Radiant Strategies. And like Frey's firm, his firm's website prominently displays a photo of – you guessed it – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Not for nothing, Perraut's firm lists Frey's firm as an "affiliate.") Perraut's firm also crows about his prior experience as an OIRA staffer, noting that he had "served in the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2008 to 2014. In that role, he supervised FDA and USDA policies relating to food and nutrition, tobacco, biotechnology, veterinary medicine, and agriculture." (Emphasis mine.)
The growing number of former OIRA staffers transitioning to the lobbying industry where they work on behalf of corporate special interests to influence the very set of issues they once worked on while employed at the powerful office is troubling indeed. Even more troubling: I'm not aware of any former OIRA staffers who have gone on to pursue a career working for public interest organizations that likewise have a strong concern about the public safeguards that pass through the OIRA review process.
Overall, this pattern stands in stark contrast to efforts by defenders of OIRA to portray its staffers as neutral arbiters, simply using supposed deep policy expertise to ask tough questions about pending agency rules with the humble goal of making them "better." Here's how former OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein describes his impressions of the OIRA staff in a recent column:
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has about 45 civil servants, with a diversity of backgrounds; some are economists, some are lawyers, and some have degrees in public policy. All of them are highly experienced, and some have been there for decades.
They never push an ideological line, and they aren't wedded to the status quo. When I headed OIRA, I had no idea whether my staff members were Democrats or Republicans.
I wonder what Sunstein would make of Frey's and Perraut's passage through the revolving door. In fact, the very existence of firms like Frey's and Perraut's would appear to contradict Sunstein's rose-tinted portrayal. After all, the whole business model of these firms trades on the inherent subjectivity of OIRA staffers and their susceptibility to outside influence.
For me and other OIRA observers, this is just further evidence of the inherent anti-safeguard and pro-corporate bias that pervades the office. In the months ahead, I will be tracking OIRA's meeting records – one of the few ways OIRA discloses its activities – to see how often BP participates in a lobbying meeting on a rule undergoing centralized review and to see if Frey is sitting there across the table from his former colleagues. I'll report any findings here, so keep an eye on this space.