WAHINGTON - In a traditional game of political whack-a-mole, the Obama White House has moved quickly to freeze all pending regulations proposed by the former president's administration, including president Bush's attempts to roll back large swathes of environmental legislation.
President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel issued a memo on inauguration day warning federal agencies not to send proposed or final regulations to the Office of the Federal Register for publication. The Oval Office is to review each of them first.
The White House memo also gives the president's designates the chance to re-evaluate rules that have already been published in the federal register, but which agencies have not yet brought into effect.
Last-minute rules, known as midnight regulations, are common when one administration leaves office. The Bush administration was working on a swathe of regulations in the run-up to the transition, many of which carried an environmental impact.
For example, on Tuesday, as president Obama took office, a rule exempting factory farms from reporting pollution emissions from animal waste came into effect. It had been finalised on 18 December.
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Other rules that took effect in the previous week governed the reclassification of hazardous waste as fuel, allowing it to be burned, and the opening of two million acres of western land to leasing for oil shale development. Last Thursday, a regulation also came into effect allowing federal representatives to approve projects without considering global warming, and without consulting biological health experts about the effect on endangered species.
A report called After Midnight by OMB Watch and the Center for American Progress listed a number of options for the new administration as it seeks to draw a line under Bush policy and impose its own rule. Proposed regulations are easy to stop. The Oval Office simply tells agencies to stop working on them. However, " final rules present a more difficult problem. Executive branch agencies cannot throw out a final Bush rule with the stroke of a pen," warned the report. "They must conduct an entirely new rulemaking - the legal process by which regulations are made - which often consumes significant time and resources."
The Congressional Review Act also allows Congress to overturn Bush regulations completed after 15 May last year, which include many of the attempts to relax environmental rules. "Funding also may be withheld to block implementation or enforcement of undesirable rules," the report added. In addition, lawsuits can be brought against the rules, which the new government could settle.
The Bush administration rushed through 157 regulations in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with 83 the year before. However, while midnight regulations are often criticised they are not unusual; the struggle to stop the previous administration's last-minute rule-making is a regular occurrence during presidential transitions. President Clinton also signed many midnight regulations into effect.