President Bush this month is giving an obscure White House office new powers over regulations affecting health, worker safety and the environment. Calling it a power grab, Democrats running Congress are intent on stopping him.
The House voted last week to prohibit the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from spending federal money on Executive Order 13422, signed by Bush last January and due to take effect July 24.
The order requires federal officials to show that private companies, people or institutions failed to address a problem before agencies can write regulations to tackle it. It also gives political appointees greater authority over how the regulations are written.
The House measure "stops this president or any president from seizing the power to rewrite almost every law that Congress passes, laws that protect public health, the environment, safety, civil rights, privacy and on and on," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., its sponsor.
"OIRA has quietly grown into the most powerful regulatory agency in Washington," the House Science investigations subcommittee, chaired by Miller, said in a report in April.
The administration contends Bush's order merely strengthens a similar directive issued by President Clinton in 1993 giving the White House budget office oversight of federal agency rulemaking.
Andrea Wuebker, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, which manages the White House regulatory affairs office, said the order, along with an OMB good guidance bulletin, "will help increase the quality, accountability and transparency of agency guidance documents."
Bush's executive order:
- Requires agencies to identify "market failures," where the private sector fell short in dealing with a problem, as a factor in proposing a rule. The White House regulatory affairs office is given authority to assess those conclusions.
- States that no rulemaking can go forward without the approval of an agency's Regulatory Policy Office, to be headed by a presidential appointee.
- Directs each agency to provide an estimate of costs and benefits of regulations.
- Requires agencies to inform the White House regulatory affairs office of proposed significant guidance documents on complying with rules. Critics say this will create a new bottleneck delaying the issuance of guidelines needed to comply with federal regulations.
"This can only further delay implementing health, safety and environmental protections," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a private watchdog group that joined numerous labor and good-government groups, including the AFL-CIO, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists, in opposing Bush's order.
Miller tried unsuccessfully at a hearing in April to persuade the White House regulatory affairs office's former acting administrator, Steven Aitken, to reveal what private groups might have been involved in rewriting the Clinton-era order.
Aitken stressed that the Clinton order also used market failure as a criteria in advancing new rules and directing agencies to appoint regulatory policy officers, many of whom were political appointees. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., backed Aitken up at the hearing.
"The pattern is that we are challenging the president's authority, hoping to find a mistake and then making a lot of political hay about it," Rohrabacher said.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted in an analysis last February that President Reagan made the White House regulatory affairs office the central clearinghouse for substantive rulemaking, reviewing 2,000 to 3,000 proposed regulations per year. With Clinton's 1993 order, White House reviews of proposed regulations dropped to between 500 and 700 a year, the researchers said.
Bill Kovacs, vice president for regulatory affairs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the White House's regulatory affairs office now has about 35 people to keep track of the 4,000 rules federal agencies issue every year.
"It's only reasonable that you have some way of monitoring what your agencies are doing," Kovacs said, adding that the White House needs to assert control over the process.
The House bill is HR 2829.
On the Net:
Text of Jan. 18 Executive Order 13422: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/orders
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