For the first time in history, the federal government has undertaken a “look back” process to identify and eliminate anachronistic, redundant or unwarranted regulations.

The Obama administration says it is not “deregulation” and points to its beefing up of regulations in areas like health and the environment. Instead, officials say the review will help the public and save money.

According to an executive order issued by President Obama earlier this year, federal agencies must use a transparent process of rule-making that uses the best available science and a cost-benefit analysis, and must be accessible and the least burdensome,

Overseeing the review effort is Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein.

Since the president’s order, 30 federal agencies and Cabinet-level departments have scoured tens of thousands of pages of regulations. These agencies turned in hundreds of ideas for rule changes, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The process included a period of public comment.

According to Sunstein, the process expects to save billions for both taxpayers and businesses. He cited an Environmental Protection Agency rule created decades ago that includes milk and dairy containers in a federal regulation that protects Americans from the hazards of oil spills. According to the the EPA website, a new rule, which has been approved as a result of this process, will exempt dairy containers and focus only on oil and gas company containers. The rule will save dairy farmers $140 million each year.

The EPA will also revise old rules that require gas stations to purchase air pollution vapor recovery systems, because modern cars already have equally effective pollution control systems. This revision should save gas station owners about $670 million over the next 10 years.

Among other rules that have been identified for elimination or revision include a set of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employer reporting rules. According to the Sunstein’s office, the elimination of these redundant rules and reporting procedures will save $40 million and 1.9 million work hours. A new OSHA rule that will streamline hazards classification and labels will save business owners close to $600 million every year.

“This rule is going to save lives,” Sunstein told reporters on a conference call, May 26. “But it will also save millions of dollars.”

A streamlined Department of Transportation railroad safety equipment rule “would maintain robust railroad safety standards while saving up to $400 million up front and up to $1 billion over 20 years,” Sunstein’s office reported.

“This change will continue to protect safety,” Sunstein said. “That’s a top priority.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has also proposed eliminating redundant reporting by doctors. According to Sunstein, the current requirements do not provide any additional protections for patients but do add unnecessarily to the workload for workers in doctors’ offices.

While some of the ideas have already been put into place, most of the proposals will be posted on a White House website for continued public comment.

“The President’s executive order contains a number of principles and directives in it that are designed to go beyond the polarizing, anachronistic, decades-old debate over regulation,” Sunstein added.

The administration says it expects the financial and labor savings of the new regulatory process will be much greater than any achieved by the deregulation moves in the first two years of the Bush administration.

While labor and cost-saving rules changes will earn some praise from the business community, the aim of the process, the White House repeatedly points out, isn’t to appease or appeal to any particular groups. Rather, officials say, the goal is efficiency and  protection of the health and safety of the public.

Sunstein pointed to new regulations by the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers from salmonella poisoning, new EPA regulations on pollution and fuel economy, and new health care regulations, to argue that the administration’s review process isn’t a pro-business move.

Sunstein could have also mentioned recent EPA steps to strengthen regulations on carbon and mercury emissions or its plan to boost CAFE standards later this year, to show that the administration’s goal in this process isn’t standard “deregulation” as favored by conservative administrations and the business community.

“What we’re determined to do here is to change the regulatory culture in a way that will get beyond polarized debate between those who celebrate regulation and those who decry regulation,” Sunstein explained. The plan, he said, is to ensure that regulations, or the lack thereof, are based on empirical evidence, science, practical needs, and qualitative and quantitative cost-benefit analysis. This will sometimes mean new rules for certain situations and revision or elimination of rules in others.

While the next step is to open the proposals up to public comment, some media reports indicate that special business interest groups have formed innocuous sounding front groups to manipulate the public comment process.

A safeguard against this, Sunstein said, was that all public comments are a matter of public record and can be tracked. Another protection against cheating on the public comment process, he said, will be scrutiny of the proposed ideas based not on who wants it but on whether or not it is a good idea.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.