Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cass Sunstein in the news

As part of its effort to mend fences with business, the Obama administration has ordered of a review of regulations to seek "the proper balance," trying to "ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth" and to remove "outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive." "Per a senior administration official, OMB Director Jack Lew is overseeing this effort, and it will be run out of Cass Sunstein’s office at OMB."

Left-leaning groups are predictably worried, and respond as if the mere notion that a regulation could be economically harmful is some kind of vile Republican lie.

Note that Obama's op-ed named just one example of overregulation, already repealed: the classification of saccharine as hazardous waste by the EPA. And it foresees new or stiffer "safety rules for infant formula; procedures to stop preventable infections in hospitals; efforts to target chronic violators of workplace safety laws." The emphasis of the piece is hardly on any claim that in fact there is too much regulation in any area. The tone is generally one that says "we've been doing things basically right and now we will confirm that with a self-audit."

I predict that almost no regulations will actually be repealed as a result of this, except in cases of conflict or redundancy with other regulations. I'm sure that compliance requirements can be simplified in many cases, and that we'll hear triumphant accounts of that: "Small businesses used to need to fill out 13 forms to do this; that has been reduced to 3." Almost any complex bureaucracy accumulates surplus paperwork requirements, and there are always reductions that can be made there just by deciding to look for them. But don't expect any sweeping round of deregulation here. Something more like Gore's "reinventing government" is the most to expect: basically worthy housecleaning, important to do every so often, but not at all fundamentally transformative of the regulatory balance. This is an effort to "change the tone," not to change the state.

Indeed, the Executive Order itself explicitly says "This order is supplemental to and reaffirms the principles, structures, and definitions governing contemporary regulatory review that were established in Executive Order 12866 of September 30, 1993"-- that is, the original order establishing the Reinventing Government initiative. It's a reaffirmation and refinement of existing practice. The greatest novelty is the order that each agency develop a plan for the periodic review of past regulations; but it seems that the reviews will be conducted by the agencies themselves, which already could have proposed changing their past rules had they wanted to.

One question, though: doesn't the new order mandate what Sunstein's office was supposed to be doing all along? He's a very energetic guy who likes to work long hours, and he was confirmed a year and a half ago. The Federal Register only grows by a couple of hundred pages per day, which is about his writing pace. Hasn't he already completed this review?

Update: See als these comments from Eric Posner.

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