Timely rule reviews the top priority for reg-czar nominee

President Obama's pick for his next regulatory czar used buzzwords at his nomination hearing today that are sure to be well-received by those concerned about a backlog of proposed regulations awaiting White House reviews.

Asked to name his top three priorities should he be confirmed as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator, Howard Shelanski put timely rule reviews at the top of his list.

Shelanski promised he'd "ensure that regulatory reviews at OIRA occur in as timely a manner as possible."

As of today, 72 of the 142 proposed rules that agencies have submitted for OIRA reviews have been held for longer than the 90 days allowed by executive order. Those reviews are designed to determine whether agencies considered alternatives and whether the costs and benefits of the proposals were properly weighed.

When asked about the backlog, Shelanski declared his respect for the timeline outlined under executive order. He said, "One of my highest priorities should I become administrator ... would be to improve the timeliness" of the reviews.


A lawyer and economist, Shelanski currently serves as the director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Economics. And though he has done extensive work in telecommunications and antitrust law, his regulatory outlook was not well-known heading into today's hearing.

In recent years, OIRA has been at the heart of a debate between conservatives and progressives over the influence of business interests over federal rulemaking. Conservatives believe the office should be doing more to protect companies from the burden of federal rules. Progressive groups fret that the office has slowed or turned back important health and safety rule proposals.

In a comment that was cheered after the hearing by some progressive groups, Shelanski said OIRA's job isn't to judge the scientific determinations of federal agencies during its reviews.

"I do believe it is the job of OIRA to ask hard questions," Shelanski said. "I do not believe it is the role of OIRA ... to substitute its judgment about science and regulatory priorities for those of the expert agency staff."

Celia Wexler of the Union of Concerned Scientists called that statement "refreshing."

"He seemed to respect the fact that agencies have the expertise in the scientific arena," Wexler said.

During the hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) pressed Shelanski to heed business groups that have protested what they see as a flood of regulatory red tape in recent years that has added new costs of compliance at a time when the U.S. economy is working its way out of its sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"There's only so much one can learn from looking at the cost side" of a proposed regulation, Shelanski said. "The question is whether the benefits one is trying to achieve are justified by the costs."

Johnson said he supports proposals to form a separate committee whose job would be to identify and eliminate rules that are no longer useful or have heavy unintended costs.

And while assuring the senator he'd look into such a proposal, Shelanski indicated that he believed agencies have been doing just that through the "regulatory look-back" program established under OIRA's previous administrator, Cass Sunstein, who stepped down from his post last August.

It is "extremely important to ensure even as we move forward ... that we look back at regulations on the books to ensure there are no burdens in place," Shelanski said.

He added that he looked forward to "learning more about how the retrospective review process has been implemented" under Sunstein.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who oversaw OIRA in his role as the head of George W. Bush's Office of Management and Budget, pressed Shelanski to do more to make the results of those look-backs by agencies more transparent and accessible to the public.

Portman also sought to have Shelanski commit to ensuring that OIRA follows federal statute when it comes to the publication of the Unified Regulatory Agenda and Regulatory Plan that lists regulations that agencies intend to move forward. Although the document is required to be published twice a year in the spring and fall, the Obama administration held off until late December to publish a 2012 edition. Republicans accused the White House of trying to hide its regulatory intentions during the 2012 election.

"I share your concerns with transparency and the need to publish the regulatory agenda," Shelanski told Portman.

Though he said he had not learned the reason behind the delay in the 2012 agenda, Shelanski said he would make it one of his highest priorities to make sure the document is published twice a year, on schedule.

"Should I be confirmed ... I think it is vitally important that American businesses ... have notice of what is in the regulatory pipeline," he said.

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