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article imageObama WH environmental agenda as bad as Bush, report shows

By Lynn Herrmann     Dec 3, 2011 in Politics
Washington - A new and damning report reveals mandates during the White House years of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama were “persistently ignored” and controlled by a small group of “free-ranging” economists controlling federal rules.
The Center For Progressive Reform’s (CPR) new report, Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment (pdf), exposes a powerful, yet small group of some three dozen economists operating as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) who control federal rules designed to protect public health and the environment.
However, under this guise the group “operates as a free-ranging squad” with the ability to send a staggering number of draft regulatory actions - 6,194 over a ten-year period covered in the report - into a maze which operates behind closed doors.
The authors of the report said
Our results tell a damning story of the relentless erosion of expert agency judgments by relatively junior White House staffers.
Leaning heavily in favor of leading industrial giants such as oil production, coal mining and petrochemical manufacturing, OIRA’s control over federal rules operates “a dragnet that operates behind closed doors.”
In fact, no policy which could distress these powerful industries goes into effect without OIRA’s approval, the report notes.
Calling OIRA’s playing field “sharply tilted toward industry interests, a process that demeans all disciplines” except those practicing OIRA’s point of view, the report added this tilt allows “political considerations to trump expert judgments much of the time.” It noted this “highly biased process” is far more accessible to these “regulated industries” than to public interest groups.
At issue is Executive Order 12,866 (EO 12,866), issued September 30, 1993, by President Clinton, which was an attempt to reform OIRA’s shortcomings. It calls for a regulatory system protecting Americans’ health, safety and the environment. It also calls for “the performance of the economy without imposing unacceptable or unreasonable costs on society.” EO 12,866 is still in effect today.
According to the CPR report, EO 12,866 has twin cornerstones of transparency requiring (1) OIRA make available “all documents exchanged between OIRA and the agency during the review by OIRA” and (2) all agencies to “identify for the public those changes in the regulatory action that were made at the suggestion or recommendation of OIRA.”
With these cornerstones still in place, CPR state “OIRA routinely violates these provisions.”
The report called out the Obama administration, stating it was as bad as the Bush II administration in a “determined neglect” of EO 12,866. The secretive practices of the two presidents‘ administrations “make it impossible for the public to undertake a systematic, rule-by-rule analysis” of OIRA’s review impact.
Calling Obama an “ostensibly transformative” president, the report found OIRA, under his watch, had a 62 percent industry participation rate in its review meetings, down slightly from Bush II’s 68 percent. Obama’s public interest group participation level was 16 percent, up from Bush’s 10 percent.
During the ten-year period covered in the report, between October 16, 2001 and June 1, 2011, a non-stop stream of industry lobbyists appeared before OIRA as “a court of last resort” - some 3,760 times - after failing to convince leaders at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to undermine pending regulations, according to the CPR report.
On the CPR list of 30 organizations which met most frequently with OIRA, just five were national environmental groups. Seventeen were from the regulated industries arena, including the American Chemistry Council at the top spot, followed by ExxonMobile at 3. Other industry giants on this list included the American Forest and Paper Association (4), American Petroleum Institute (7), Edison Electric Institute (9). Four of the top 20 on the list were Washington, D.C.-based industry law firms.
The report found OIRA to be “disproportionately obsessed with EPA,” noting a solid 442 of OIRA’s 1,080 meetings dealt with EPA rulings. No other agency had more than 137 meetings (DOT). Of all rule-making matters reviewed by OIRA, the EPA submitted only 11 percent, yet accounted for 41 percent of all meetings held.
In response to the Kingston, Tennessee coal ash sludge spill in 2008, the EPA proposed the coal ash rule. However, OIRA held it captive for six months and at the end of that period the “proposal that emerged was so altered, that the rule will not come out until after the 2012 election,” according to CPR.
During the decade-long period of the study, OIRA changed EPA rules 84 percent of the time, a “significantly higher rate” than with other agencies - 65 percent for the study period.
The report noted OIRA’s frequent changing of rules to exactly the ways requested by industry lobbyists “cements its reputation as an aggressive one-way ratchet.”
Among the most recent alarm bells signaling OIRA’s power was the recent loosening of smog standards by the EPA’s Lisa Jackson. While the EPA took the brunt of the firestorm surrounding this action, the report notes it was, in fact, OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein who, under the watch of the Obama administration, instructed the EPA to make the change. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), as it’s officially known, had been labeled “legally indefensible” by Jackson, yet the Obama administration was able to make it “significantly weaker” than even the Bush Administration’s proposal was.
CPR states OIRA has a “burgeoning distortion” of statutes like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the Mine Safety Health Act. The report added it has “little hope” the Obama administration will consider a fundamental overhaul of OIRA, which it notes is genuinely needed.
Still, the report calls for elimination of OIRA’s review of individual regulatory proposals, re-directing its efforts to focus on cross-cutting regulatory issues requiring coordinated efforts by multiple agencies.
Other reforms calls for OIRA to help agencies develop proposals strengthening their effectiveness administratively and legislatively, and advocating targeted budget increases enabling those agencies to enforce existing laws.
The report added that short of these necessary and fundamental reforms, “first step” reforms for OIRA should include transparency, a level playing field, conducting business in a timely manner, and implementing a focus on economically significant rules.
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