Obama administration kick-starts regulatory reform, but more action needed

Monday - 9/17/2012, 5:00am EDT

Jerry Ellig, senior research fellow, George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

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The Barack Obama White House says it has cut red tape, reduced paperwork for businesses and citizens, and required agencies to simplify or get rid of old regulations. But has the Obama administration really reduced regulations?

When it comes to the President's efforts to reduce regulations, Federal News Radio believes more progress is needed. The administration has not universally embraced the spirit of reducing regulations. And it has made limited progress toward its stated goals and produced limited results.

The rating is part of our special week-long, multimedia series, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years. Throughout the series, Federal News Radio examines 23 different ideas and initiatives instituted by the Obama Administration and ranks them as effective, ineffective or more progress needed.

Why Regulation Efforts were rated More Progress Needed
Reason #1: OIRA/OMB created RegInfo.gov to help the public track rules and regulations.

Reason #2: Former OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein asked agencies to review outdated rules.

Reason #3: TechAmerica says the number of acquisition regulations has skyrocketed over the last four years from 87 in 2009 to 208 in 2012. (Source: TechAmerica roundtable)

(More primary source material available on The Obama Impact Resource Page)

The White House has pushed to reduce the numerous regulations agencies oversee and produce each year. And Obama has signed two executive orders to help accomplish that goal.

The first requires agencies to periodically review old regulations and was signed in 2011, and the second came earlier this year and would identify and reduce regulatory burdens.

Also this year, OMB issued policies to increase transparency and to reduce regulations. And the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) called for agencies to write straightforward executive summaries that simplify what can be lengthy and complex rules.

In another step to reduce regulations, then-OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein asked agencies to review outdated rules or rules that are no longer needed, and get rid of them.

OMB says these reviews are on track to save $10 billion over five years. But progress has been slow and inconsistent partly because of the enormity of the task. And how the departure of Sunstein, who was the driving force behind regulatory reduction efforts at OIRA, affects the reviews remains unclear.

Jerry Ellig, acting director of the Federal Trade Commission's Office of Policy Planning under George W Bush, paints two different pictures of the Obama White House's regulatory record. One approved fewer overall regulations than two prior administrations and reduced some red tape. But the same administration also increased the number of regulations that have the greatest impact on the economy and has offered weak data to support its claims that the Obama White House has actually cut billions of dollars worth of regulations.

He said the retrospective review of old regulations eliminated some needless regulations. For example, farmers no longer have to treat a milk spill like an oil spill.

"I'm sure this has done some good, but I'd take the cost figures with a grain of salt," he said of the review.

Ellig currently serves as a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

Jerry Ellig (Photo: Mercatus Center)

Also it's unclear how much paperwork has been reduced either by allowing for electronic forms or by simply eliminating red tape, he said.

"If you look at total regulations, President Obama has regulated less. But if you're looking at the big regulations that have large impacts, he's regulated more," Ellig told Federal News Radio.

During his first three years in office, Obama has approved an annual average of 123 big-ticket regulations, those that carry an economic impact worth more than $100 million a year. That's 17 percent more than either Presidents Bush or Clinton during their first three years in office, Ellig said.

And some new regulations have heavily targeted specific areas like acquisition. TechAmerica, an industry association, says the number of regulations governing federal acquisitions has sky-rocketed during the Obama presidency. In 2009, 87 were approved compared to 208 this year — more than a twofold increase. (Source: TechAmerica roundtable Sept. 2012).

Despite that, Ellig said the Obama administration has approved fewer overall regulations than Bush and about half as many as Clinton.

Politics has also played a role in the pace and type of regulations coming out of OIRA, Ellig said.

"And I think the pattern that you can probably see is that after the 2010 elections, when it became clear that this election year would be really difficult, I think maybe Cass Sunstein and the OIRA staff got a bit more ability to have their way whether it was blocking regulations or revising regulations," Ellig said.

Republicans argue that regulations overly burden business and are holding down the national economy. And the weak economy continues to be issue No. 1 this election season.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in August that Sunstein "appeared to recognize the harm overly burdensome regulations inflict on economic growth and job creation." Despite that, Issa said Sunstein "was not able to stop the tsunami of regulations enacted by the Obama administration."


More from the special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years

Part 1: Evaluating the Obama administration's management initiatives

Part 2: Evaluating Obama's technology reforms

Part 3: Evaluating Obama's workforce initiatives

Part 4: Evaluating Obama's acquisition efforts

Part 5A: What would a second-term for President Obama mean for feds?

Part 5B: What would a Romney presidency mean for federal workers?