On Monday, I attended a panel discussion on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Titled “The President’s Super-Regulators: What’s next for OIRA?” and hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in conjunction with the Sunlight Foundation, the panel set out to discuss OIRA’s role in rulemakings, its evolution, openness, and future. Little-known outside the beltway but wielding significant influence, OIRA reviews regulations that impose more than $100 million in annual compliance costs for affected industries. The office develops guidance on information policy, collection of information, regulatory matters, and statistical programs and standards. Most recently, AALL has worked with OIRA on implementing the Obama Administration’s National Action Plan.
As “The President’s Super-Regulators,” OIRA’s small staff is housed in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. With OIRA’s administrator, “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein, having just departed for Harvard, there is occasion to evaluate the Obama administration’s approach to rulemaking and its level of transparency in the process. The panel of experts included both advocates and critics of OIRA: Susan Dudley, a former OIRA administrator under President Bush, and Michael Fitzpatrick, a former associate administrator under President Obama spoke of their experiences leading the 50-person office in its work, while Curtis Copeland, former specialist with the Congressional Research Service, and Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen led the discussion on OIRA’s shortcomings and opportunities for greater transparency.
Needless to say, the panelists were not in consensus. Fitzpatrick and Dudley stood firm in their belief that the office provides a “dispassionate and analytical second opinion” to improve regulations before they go out the gate (Dudley’s words). Having received criticism from both the left and the right, industry groups and consumer advocates, Fitzpatrick suggested of the attacks that, “It’s a pretty good indication you’re doing your job right.” While the Obama administration has finalized fewer regulations overall than either Clinton or Bush during the same point in their first terms, Fitzpatrick pushed through more rules with more than a $100 million impact. Pointing out that OIRA staff is made of career civil servants without political agendas, Dudley pointed to several transparent steps the office has taken. OIRA is required to make public all meetings held with outside groups and posts regulations before and after they’re finalized. Each six months, a regulatory agenda is released.
According to Weissman and Copeland, though, there are plenty of opportunities for OIRA to do more on the openness front. During the informal review process, agencies are advised not to document the changes made to regulations. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to tell how significant the changes made were in the first place, thanks to the “black box”-like secrecy of the process. Weismann also took to task the perceived bias of OIRA towards lobbyist and industry interest groups, a claim which Dudley and Fitzpatrick adamantly refuted.
The panelist did agree, however, that with more attention—be it greater resources or a critical reassessment, depending on who you ask—there is plenty of opportunity for the President’s Super Regulators to wield their influence in a way that is fair, transparent, and significant.