Did White House Play Politics With Regulations?



You would be forgiven for yawning at the assertion that the White House played politics with several regulatory policies ahead of the 2012 election. After all, politics is sort of the name of the game. But the Washington Post has a front pager today on that very topic, reporting that

The White House systematically delayed enacting a series of rules on the environment, worker safety and health care to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election…

While the Post notes that the official line is that the delays were merely coincidence, the report says sources within the administration made clear that political reasons played a role in  many cases so as to prevent any controversies that could hinder President Obama’s reelection efforts.

The biggest problem with this sort of story is that there’s a pretty good argument to be made for any perspective on this. The Post quotes some who say the delays had real policy implications that disadvantaged certain groups of people, but it also quotes officials defending the delays as necessary to get the policies right. Those groups probably wouldn’t have been helped if the regulations had holes and technicalities that undermined their purpose, and the delays probably weren’t quite as necessary as they’re now being made out to be.

As far as the question of political meddling, that isn’t really much of a shock. And from a practical standpoint, what would have been the point of instituting new regulations that would have only been overturned within a few months by a President Romney? Perhaps then we would have had a story highlighting the cost of reversing so many controversial regulations in such a short time frame.

Ron Fournier at National Journal takes up the story, and also has criticism for the president. He says this is a big deal because

Obama’s apologists will say that every president plays politics with policy in elections years. Two problems with that. First, Obama promised to be better than the status quo. Second, he’s worse.

Then he quotes from the Post story, by Juliet Eilperin, which says

The number and scope of delays under Obama went well beyond those of his predecessors, who helped shape rules but did not have the same formalized controls, said current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

A 2012 story at the Post’s Wonkblog dove into the regulatory process, specifically looking at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). That office is the one tasked with translating general laws into specific policies to be carried out by the bureaucracy. Cass Sunstein, pictured above, led Obama’s OIRA until the fall of 2012. Here’s part of what that article had to say about the office:

Dudley, OIRA’s administration during the Bush years, argues that the office is actually less likely “to be captured by concentrated special interests that influence agency decisions,” as its authority isn’t limited to any particular set of policies. ”Its analytical principles are generally not controversial and certainly not partisan,” she said. Fitzpatrick points out that the agency’s 50-some staffers are mostly career bureaucrats, remaining “essentially the same from administration to administration.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that OIRA is an organ of the White House, housed in its Office of Management and Budget, with the intention of putting the administration’s final stamp on agency regulations. And it frequently does alter the draft regulations before they’re put into effect: “OIRA changed 76 percent of rules submitted to it for review under President Obama, compared to a 64 percent change rate under President Bush,” according to a 2011 report from the Center for Progressive Reform.
[photo credit: By Matthew W. Hutchins, Harvard Law Record (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]]

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