The White House is pursuing environmental law expert Richard Revesz to lead its regulatory review shop, E&E News has learned.
The critical post at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA, has been vacant for nearly two years. The timing of a formal announcement remains elusive, however, according to two people who were granted anonymity to speak candidly.
If Revesz wants the job, it’s his, those people said. Revesz declined comment.
Officials there are said to be weighing the political considerations of nominating him less than three months before the midterm elections. They worry the polarized political climate will create a tough confirmation process for Revesz, even if some Republican lawmakers might otherwise consider him a sensible choice. The White House declined comment.
Revesz has for 14 years run the Institute for Policy Integrity, a New York University-affiliated think tank. He also served as a dean at NYU’s law school and previously advised EPA. In 2020, he was passed over for the influential role of EPA chief (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2020).
Scholars have noted that the job of OIRA administrator also wields considerable power, and many have been baffled by the vacancy. The role would be even more vital if Democrats lose the House or Senate and have to rely on executive action, rather than legislation, to further their goals.
Currently, top career official Dominic Mancini is temporarily overseeing the office. Though he has nearly 20 years of OIRA experience, observers say his civil servant status prevents him from being on par with other top Biden officials like heads of agencies.
OIRA reviews hundreds of “economically significant” federal regulations every year. About 50 desk officers scrutinize the costs to industry and the benefits to public health and the environment.
Ultimately, the administrator has the power to modify or kill major rules that private industries oppose. In 2011, for instance, then-OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein pulled the plug on the smog standard, to the chagrin of environmentalists and progressives.
Generally, progressives tend to find the cost-benefit calculation inherently skewed. They have long been urging an overhaul (Greenwire, Aug. 28, 2020).
President Joe Biden intimated reforms could be coming, but for the most part, progressives have been left disappointed.
While Biden appointed Harvard labor expert Sharon Block to temporarily lead the office, she was never nominated for the formal role. She left the administration in January, and the office only has a handful of political appointees.
Observers say tapping Revesz keeps with the tradition of picking a relative institutionalist for the job. Nevertheless, he has liberal credentials: He was an outspoken opponent of the Trump environmental rollbacks.
He is an advocate for strengthening environmental protections through revised economic analysis, as he wrote in his book, “Retaking Rationality: How Cost-Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environment and Our Health.”
That neoliberal view separates Revesz from other progressives who might have overhauled the office. Another person vetted for the job was Ganesh Sitaraman, a longtime political adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who teaches constitutional law at Vanderbilt University. The White House has worried Sitaraman might not get confirmed, the two people said.
James Goodwin, a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, thought Revesz would improve cost-benefit analyses but doubted he would bring ambitious reforms.
“We don’t need better cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “We need to move on.”
Promoters of Revesz thought he would bring an astute legal mind needed to bulletproof regulations. That will be particularly critical after the Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, they said.
“What the administration really needs is someone who can move regulations through the process and help make them as defensible in court as possible,” said Dan Farber, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor. “He’s well suited to that, and his ability to speak the same language as economists will help him in moving OIRA away from its anti-regulatory roots.”
Farber also said Revesz has shown an awareness of social justice issues involving regulating, “though maybe not as much as some progressives would ideally like.”
Many others reached for this story declined to talk on the record but stressed the White House needs to fill the role — fast. OIRA will play a role in shaping an abundance of policies, including those on electric vehicles, national parks, drones and pollution. Stuart Shapiro, interim dean at Rutgers University, called the drawn-out delay “astonishing.”