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How Regulation Falters Under One Opaque Agency

Joseph Hines

The best-kept secret in Washington is that the executive branch’s own regulatory agenda is being steadily undermined by one little-known executive industry, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). 

The OIRA, created in 1980 to “streamline” government paperwork, was founded as a very powerful tool for industry to stop regulation. Their explicit mandate, to adopt a cost-benefit approach to regulation, prioritized the interests of industry over those of the people. With the power to take regulation from agencies and remake them as they see fit, the agency has certainly lived up to their founding promise, with little transparency. 

Under the extreme pressure of corporate lobbyists, there’s plenty of reason for delay. In Down the Regulatory Rabbit Hole, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, of which Demos is a part, showed eight case studies of how the White House’s process of reviewing proposed rules has become untenable. It shows that more than 120 rules are currently being delayed by the OIRA, 70 rules in defiance of an executive order requiring reviews be completed within 90 days. 

An analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform bears this out. In 2012, the average wait time for “economically significant” rules was 69 days, the longest wait time since 1994. In 2013, the average review time is up to an astounding 98 days.

Brad Plumer at Wonkblog has a good breakdown of some of the rules still waiting to be adopted

The regulations in question are wide-ranging: There’s a safety rule on silica dust for miners. There’s an extension of minimum-wage laws to home-care workers. There are new oversight standards for imported food. And there’s a rule to require rear-view visibility technology so that people can see behind their cars and don’t accidentally back over children. In some cases, these regulations have remained at OIRA for years.

Today, the New York Times called for an end to the OIRA’s obstruction, with the editorial board writing that the “backlog has more to do with politics than economics.” They note the steep increase in the 2012 election year, and the almost inexplicable continuance today. 

Howard Shelanski, the newly confirmed head of OIRA, replacing Cass Sunstein, has the opportunity to change the paradigm and begin finalizing rules at a more reasonable pace. Health, safety, and the environment, via regulations with explicit backing of the administration, would benefit as a result.