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When it Comes to Regulations, Will Americans Remain Engaged?

Michael Lipsky

President Obama’s call for Americans to stay engaged has rightly been taken to refer to issues high on the public’s agenda, such as gun control and immigration reform. Essentially, the President is saying that reform reflective of the country’s most broadly held values can only be realized if people remain engaged and let their representatives know that they are paying attention.

An offshoot of the Obama electoral campaign, Organizing for Action, promises to work toward that end.

This call to engagement reflects the classic observation in political science that the scope of the conflict will determine the result of any political engagement. The resolution of an issue in an isolated hearing room, in other words, will be different than a decision made in open forum or subject to a referendum. 

We might bear this in mind as we consider the regulatory agenda of the President’s second term. In the next two years, multiple regulations will be promulgated to flesh out the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the Affordable Care Act. Participants in discussions to develop these rules are not reflective of the same balance of interests as those that influenced Congress when it sought to right the nation’s financial institutions, or extend health care to tens of millions of people. Lobbyists will be working every day to influence rule-making that most Americans won't even know is under way. 

The same is true of the Environmental Protection Agency’s anticipated promulgation of smog standards, or the Interior Department’s decisions on extracting natural gas from shale deposits. These issues have enormous implications for citizens and the environment, but also for electric power generators and the petrochemical industries.  

In writing regulations public officials will not only seek to come up with a “correct” interpretation of legislative mandates.  They will also try to determine a balance between contending interests.  Unfortunately, the industry lobbyists are better financed and organized than are environmental groups.  

This is not to say that the President will not act on the environmental agenda he hinted at in his inaugural speech. But public officials engaged in complex rule-making will need the urgency of public sentiment at their backs if they are to write good rules in the public interest. The President’s call for Americans to remain engaged bears on these developments no less than on the more visible issues of immigration reform and gun control. It will be quite the achievement if his call for public engagement extends to the rulemaking process.