WHITE HOUSE

Wonks in embattled regulatory office are mysterious -- but 'not nefarious'

First of two stories about OIRA.

On the 10th floor of a red brick building with a leaky roof not far from the White House are offices and cubicles filled with some of the most influential people in Washington.

Most people have never heard of them.

They're the cadre of wonky bureaucrats in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a division of the White House budget office.

The staff of OIRA (pronounced oh-EYE-ra) plays a big role in shaping federal rules that govern everything from how much smog can be in the air to whether farmworkers are required to wash their hands before handling food and how close ships can get to whales.

"It's an incredibly important but not that well-known piece of the White House office," said Ron White, director of regulatory policy at the government reform advocacy group Center for Effective Government. "It's a critical bottleneck that everybody has to pass through in order for regulations to get passed and get on the books."

OIRA staffers' names and titles are hard to find. The White House didn't respond to a request for a roster of the office employees. The importance of the office, combined with the relative paucity of information about its inner workings and constant attacks from outside groups, has long added to OIRA's mystique.

OIRA has a staff of about 44 people -- most of them career bureaucrats -- responsible for combing through hundreds of federal rules each year. They're economists, policy experts and scientists tasked with rooting out inefficiencies and making sure regulations line up with the president's objectives.

They're also charged with meeting with state officials, industry lobbyists and advocacy groups that march to the White House to say their piece about the rules under review.

Depending on whom you ask, the office is to be thanked for maximizing efficiencies or reviled for meddling where it shouldn't. OIRA's backers see the office's cost-benefit analyses as critical backstops needed to avoid unnecessary costs to the government and to industry.

OIRA has plenty of detractors, too.

"They assigned themselves the role of gatekeeper and permission-giver for the adoption of virtually every regulation enforcing the laws of the United States," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"If that office decides that it wants to delay or obstruct or kill a regulation, historic practice has assigned them the unprecedented role of doing so even if that means the law goes unenforced."

Only a few economists

OIRA's chief is handpicked by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The administrator often has one top political aide in the office.

Howard Shelanski -- formerly a top economics official at the Federal Trade Commission -- has been running OIRA since President Obama picked him to replace former Administrator Cass Sunstein last June. Shelanski's associate administrator is Andrei Greenawalt, who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign before joining the administration. Greenawalt has also been policy adviser to the White House chief of staff, deputy director in the Office of Cabinet Affairs and counsel in the Office of Legislative Affairs.

But the vast majority of the OIRA staffers carrying out the regulatory review are career officials. Their titles aren't up on the White House website, but public meeting records offer a glimpse into which rules they work on and the outside groups they're meeting.

Dominic Mancini, OIRA's deputy administrator, is the top career staffer and an economist by training. He's been at the office for more than a decade and led the office's natural resource and environment division for nearly four years, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The OIRA administrator and associate administrator have desks in the Old Executive Office Building attached to the White House, while most of the career staff members work out of the New Executive Office Building across the street.

The office has five sections: statistical and science policy; food, health and labor; transportation and security; natural resources and environment; and information policy. Each division has a branch chief serving as a manager of the staff working on those issues and lower-level desk officers who review rules in their areas of expertise.

Jim Laity has taken over for Mancini as the natural resources and environment branch chief. Several key staffers working on energy and environmental issues, according to a Greenwire review of OMB records, are Cortney Higgins, Chad Whiteman, Stuart Levenbach and Nathan Frey. Unlike economists in OIRA's top slots, they have backgrounds in science and public policy. And interestingly, three of them served in the Peace Corps, according to their LinkedIn profiles (see sidebar).

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Outsiders have the incorrect impression that most OIRA staffers are economists, said former OIRA chief John Graham, who headed the office during the George W. Bush administration.

"Out of roughly 40 full-time professional staff, fewer than a handful have a doctoral degree in economics," he said. "The most common degree is a master's degree in public affairs, public policy or public administration. There is also considerable expertise, in statistics, law, information technology and environmental science."

Some staffers join OIRA from other agencies, like U.S. EPA or the Food and Drug Administration, while others come from sections of the Office of Management and Budget or as recruits from graduate programs, Graham said.

The pay isn't bad. Many OIRA staffers listed on recent White House meeting records were making upward of $100,000 in 2012, according to a database of federal salaries kept by New Jersey's Asbury Park Press.

'Depressing place to work'

In spite of the nice salaries and prime office location across the street from the White House, former employees say the job is far from cushy.

"My general impression was it's a depressing place to work," said Richard Williams, director of policy research at the market-oriented Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He spent a few months working at OIRA in the early 1990s as a so-called detailee on loan from the Food and Drug Administration.

The job is hard, and "the hours are just impossible," Williams added. Rules pile up continuously, including some that aren't well-written and are not likely to accomplish what they're supposed to, he added, meaning analysts don't always have the time they need to do a good job.

One former OIRA employee, who requested anonymity in discussing the office's inner workings, said turnover can be "fairly high" for desk officers, who tend to be ambitious and in their 20s or early 30s.

"It's a position that is like a lot of positions at OMB. They're challenging, they require a lot of hours, and -- especially for the younger desk officer -- after four or five years, they feel like they've learned what they're going to learn," he said.

OIRA representatives meet constantly with just about anyone -- including states, industries, environmentalists and other advocacy groups -- who wants to weigh in on rules under review. Those meetings tend to last about 30 minutes, and representatives from industry and advocacy groups alike say there's not much of an information exchange.

"You sit on one side of the room and do your spiel; they sit on the other side of the room and largely look at you woodenly without comment, and very occasionally, they will ask a clarifying question," NRDC's Walke said. "They will not speak except to make cordial remarks, to read a boilerplate explanation of the purpose of the meeting and their inability to provide you with any information about pending discussions, and at the end of the meeting, everyone will smile and shake hands."

Staffers could sit through three to five meetings per day with outside stakeholders, on top of being charged with sifting through volumes of documents coming from the agencies.

Staff cuts have made their jobs harder. The office had about 90 staff when it was created in 1981 but had dropped to 60 by 1992 and hasn't had more than 50 people since 2005, according to a recent report prepared for a public-private partnership designed to focus on government accountability.

That shrinking staff still has to pore over hundreds of rules each year. OIRA reviewed 740 rules in 2011 and 424 regulations in 2012, according to the report.

Shelanski told a congressional panel last year that "furloughs, sequestration, the inability to hire and even backfill positions we've lost greatly compromise our ability" to do rigorous analysis in a timely way.

Sally Katzen, who was OIRA administrator during the Clinton administration, has also been struck by the budget cuts, noting that even newspaper subscriptions at OIRA have taken a hit recently.

"There are no newspapers -- none, zero. There is no training. There's no travel," she said. "They've cut everything to the bone."

'Band of brothers and sisters'

In spite of the budget crunch and ever-changing politics inside the White House, OIRA staffers are said to generally like their jobs, in part because they're dedicated to the office's mission: efficiency.

As with other agencies taking orders from a new administration, OIRA's priorities shift every time the White House changes hands and a new president changes the regulatory agenda.

Susan Dudley, who was OIRA administrator from 2007 to 2009 and now directs the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, illustrated the office's role with an oft-told joke:

Aliens invade Earth, everyone has fled the Capitol and the White House is a wasteland. But by the time the alien's spaceship lands, three people with a clipboard approach.

"We're from OMB," they say, "and we're here to help with the transition."

"We help one president get his regulations passed, and on Jan. 20, we turn around and help the next president repeal them," Dudley said. OIRA employees, she said, "respect the presidency."

Priorities also shift. For example, the Obama administration is sending over rules pertaining to the new health care law and the clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions, and the George W. Bush administration prioritized some national security rules in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As the orders from the top change, OIRA sticks to its bible -- an executive order issued in 1993 by President Clinton. Executive Order 12866 charges OIRA with reviewing draft and final rules before they're released to determine whether agencies properly weighed the costs and benefits and ensure that they're in line with the president's priorities.

Of course, the Clinton-era executive order could be wiped out and replaced with the stroke of a pen, but subsequent administrations have left it in place while adding amendments, and drastic overhauls don't appear likely anytime soon.

Rather than focusing on the content of the rules themselves, OIRA's staff appears to be more driven by the process. "People like working there; they're incredibly dedicated," Mercatus' Williams said. "They believe that they're there to make regulations efficient."

Dudley insisted it's "the best job in government."

"It's varied. It's always interesting. You actually have an impact," she said.

Another former OIRA employee called the office a "family." It's "a band of brothers and sisters working together to try to do right for the American public," that person said. "They're not nefarious, they're not evil, they're trying to do the right thing."

Tomorrow: Meet OIRA chief Howard Shelanski.

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