Regulatory czar nominee pledges to speed up review process

Wednesday - 6/12/2013, 6:21pm EDT

Jerry Ellig, senior fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University

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Howard Shelanski testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
President Barack Obama's pick to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) pledged to clear up delays in the regulatory process if confirmed by the Senate.

Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday, Howard Shelanski said improving the timeliness of OIRA's work — which has come in for criticism from Republican lawmakers and transparency groups, alike — is among his top priorities.

"I would like to ensure that regulatory review at OIRA occurs in as timely a manner as possible," Shelanski said, including notifying the public about proposed regulations on a consistent basis.

Obama nominated Shelanski, who's currently the head of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Economics to serve as his regulatory czar in April, following Cass Sunstein's departure last August.

Shelanksi also cited cited improving the agency's relationship with agency heads, Congress and public stakeholders as a "very high priority" and told the committee he plans to continue the "lookback" process of existing regulations begun under Sunstein.

"I think it is extremely important that even as we me move forward as a country with new regulations achieving new objectives or furthering old objectives that we look back at regulations on the books to ensure that there are no longer burdens in place that are not achieving their objectives," Shelanski said.

OIRA reviews taking longer

Shelanski's goals about timeliness struck a chord with senators on the committee.

OIRA is tasked with reviewing new regulations proposed by agencies. Under an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton, the agency is supposed to complete its reviews within 90 days.

But recently it has been plagued by "chronic" delays, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Currently, there are 76 rules that have been under review for more than 90 days, and 51 rules that have been delayed for more than a year, Levin said.

Public Citizen, a nonprofit good-government group that reviewed data on OIRA wait times, argues that the delays contribute to an "anti-regulatory influence."

In 2012, OIRA took an average of 79 days to review agency rules — the highest on record, according to data extending back to 1994. As of May, the average time it takes to review proposed rules has increased to 119 days — almost double the average during the George W. Bush administration.

In a report released Wednesday titled "The Perils of OIRA Regulatory Review," the group called on OIRA to operate more transparently by disclosing documents relating to its review of agency regulations and the types of changes it proposes to draft rules. The group also suggested Congress should impose a strict deadline for OIRA to review agency regulations. If the office fails to issue a ruling within that time-frame, agencies agencies would be given the green light to publish rules anyway.

Shelanski questioned about late reports

The bottlenecked review process is not the only source of delays in OIRA's workload.

The agency is also charged with publishing what's called the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions — a snapshot of of future regulations in the agency pipeline. Under both Regulatory Flexibility Act and a Clinton-administration executive order, OIRA is required to release the report twice a year, in the spring and fall.

But last year, OIRA never released the spring report and was at least a month late in publishing the other.

Shelanski said he's unsure why one of the agendas went unpublished.

"Should I be confirmed as administrator, I think it is vitally important that Americans, businesses, those who would benefit from regulation and those who would bear its costs have notice of what is in the regulatory pipeline," he said.

Making sure the reports are released on time "in so far as possible" would be among his highest priorities, he added.

But Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sought firmer assurance.

"I would just make the point again," Portman said. "It's required by law; it's required by executive order. And 'in so far as possible' is better than saying 'We're going to do what we did last year.' But what this committee would like is, I think, a commitment that you will, in fact, follow the law."

Shelanski replied that, if confirmed, he would follow the legal obligations regarding the regulatory agenda and that he "would look forward to working with you and others on the committee hearing your concerns if there are concerns that those legal obligations are not being lived up to."

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