OIRA chief's buttoned-down image belies eccentric roots

Correction appended.

Second of two stories on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Click here to read the first story.

Before Howard Shelanski became the Obama administration's regulatory czar, he was braving chickens strutting around a hotel room in Chile.

The occasion was a trip with his extended family, a close-knit brood whose unconventional adventures contrast Shelanski's buttoned-down reputation.

"In our family, you're more judged by your ability to enjoy yourself with chickens in the hotel room" more than by professional accolades, Shelanski's father, Michael, offered in a recent interview. "The only thing I know for sure is he has a reputation everywhere he's taught as a very good and amusing teacher."

It's a rare glimpse into the personality of a man who's proved as mysterious as the office he now leads: the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Shelanski has led OIRA since June, acting as gatekeeper for the hundreds of rules that agencies send to his desk.

But unlike his outspoken predecessor, Cass Sunstein, Shelanski has stayed behind the scenes. He's lauded as nice but smart, receptive but decisive.

"He's sort of a regular guy," said David Vladeck, a law professor at Georgetown University who worked with Shelanski at the Federal Trade Commission. "He's very down to earth, he's a great listener. He often is the last person to speak because he really is listening."

Vladeck also called Shelanski "really, really smart." He has held several high-level positions in government, most recently as director of the FTC's Bureau of Economics. In 2000, he was chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission; before that, he served as a senior economist for the president's Council of Economic Advisers.

He did it all for short tenures while on leave from university positions. Since he joined Georgetown Law School as a professor in 2011, Shelanski has spent less than two years at the school, due to being called away for public service.

In other words, he's a sought-after economist who seems to win over colleagues.

"He's just lovely," said Fiona Scott Morton, who was the chief economist at the Department of Justice when Shelanski was at the FTC. "He's really a wonderful person and I think has the right temperament for jobs in Washington because he's very calm and he wants to listen to everybody and make sure he's taken all points of view into account."

But not all agree. While Shelanski may be less controversial than Sunstein, he's also less media friendly. Since becoming administrator in July, he's done only one in-depth interview, answering technical questions for Bloomberg BNA. Several interview requests from Greenwire were declined.

Rena Steinzor, president for the Center for Progressive Reform, said Shelanski has an "undeservedly benign reputation."


In particular, Shelanski has gotten credit for speeding up OIRA's review of rules, decreasing the number of agency regulations held longer than outlined by executive order. In August, 57 percent of the rules in OIRA's docket had been held longer than 90 days; today, that ratio hovers at 50 percent.

But OIRA has also received fewer rules. The office is considering 114 actions, compared with 142 last June.

Some critics, including Steinzor, say Shelanski is essentially performing an accounting trick, asking agencies to withdraw rules that the administration sees as problematic.

"For reasons that aren't exactly clear, he's gotten credit for this, even though speeding it up has meant getting the agencies to withdraw things that he doesn't want to deal with," Steinzor said.

'A good student'

On paper, Shelanski is the perfect fit for an office that is equal parts economics and public policy with both a law degree and a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. That combination of expertise can be hard to find, colleagues say.

He also had an impressive run of clerkships after graduation, first working under Judge Stephen Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Judge Louis Pollak of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Then he headed to the Supreme Court to be Justice Antonin Scalia's law clerk.

Shelanski's association with Scalia was a departure from the politics of his parents, who describe themselves as "lifelong Democrats." But the accomplishment follows the narrative of a family of high achievers that includes a biologist (his father), an oncologist (his brother) and two lawyers (his mother and youngest brother).

His youngest brother, Noah, was described by their father as "a superb bartender and sometime law student in New York City" in a 2005 interview. He got his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 2006 and is now an associate at Hafetz Necheles & Rocco LLP in New York, according to the firm's website.

When together, the family talks about books and music -- and enjoys sarcastic humor, according to Michael Shelanski, who added that Howard Shelanski is "particularly fond" of Icelandic mystery novels and enjoys jazz.

The family stays close, despite being spread across different cities. Once every year or two, a family member decides a vacation is in order -- and the extended clan of 11 or so travels en masse to places like Easter Island and Chile.

That follows a somewhat nomadic childhood, where the family moved every few years to a different city to keep up with the careers of two accomplished parents. Born in Philadelphia, Shelanski lived in Chicago; New York; Bethesda, Md.; and Paris. He was a "good student, never the best student," Michael Shelanski said, and always had a group of close friends.

Michael Shelanski, a professor of pathology and cell biology, claimed ignorance about his son's professional temperament. The two don't discuss work, he said, and most of what he knows about OIRA is through online reading and newspapers.

"That office is particularly mysterious," he said, later adding, "No matter what you do in that job you make some enemies, and I think he went into this with full awareness of it."

When not on the job, Shelanski lives in Washington with Nicole Soulanill and teenage son Isaac.

Soulanille previously worked at Bechtel Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering, construction and project management firm with an office in Washington. The couple have donated to a host of nonprofits over the years, from the University of California botanical garden to the East Bay Community Law Center, according to the groups' newsletters.

As an economist at the FTC, Shelanski was making $129,519 per year in 2012, according to a database kept by New Jersey's Asbury Park Press. His salary details haven't yet been updated, but Sunstein hauled in $165,300 in 2011 as OIRA's chief, according to the database.

The family also has ties to the Temple Micah, a Jewish congregation in Washington's Glover Park neighborhood. Their son celebrated his bar mitzvah at the temple, and Shelanski and Soulanille were listed as donors in a newsletter last year.

At his nomination hearing last year, Shelanski offered a rare window into his personal life when Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) asked about his son.

As Isaac sat behind him, Shelanski responded with a few words of heartfelt pride, calling his son "a pretty darn good soccer player" and competitive fencer.

"He's a remarkable kid, but I guess most dads would say that," Shelanski said. "He's a smart kid -- a lot smarter than I am. Were he a little older, I think he'd certainly be in this seat instead of me."

A Democrat with an economist's mind

Shelanski appears to lean Democrat with several donations to liberal candidates over the years.

He donated $250 to John Kerry's 2004 bid to be president and backed Hillary Clinton's presidential primary campaign in 2007. He was also donating to President Obama's primary campaign in 2007 and continued shelling out to Obama and the Democratic National Committee in 2008. Shelanski contributed $2,000 to Obama's campaign in the run-up to his 2012 re-election, according to campaign finance records.

His regulatory philosophy is somewhat unclear, though his previous focus was on antitrust enforcement. He has also emphasized the need for OIRA to stay out of agency policy decisions.

He's been meeting with interest groups from across the ideological spectrum since his June confirmation, according to White House public meeting records. He has met in the Old Executive Office Building with regulatory reform advocates, top officials from the Energy and Labor departments, industry representatives like Business Roundtable President John Engler, and others.

People in the regulatory world have a harder time reading him than his predecessor. A prolific legal scholar, Sunstein was not shy about stating his opinion; while at OIRA, he espoused a controversial belief that some rules are unnecessary and burdensome.

Progressives accused Sunstein of playing into a Republican narrative of "job-killing red tape." But he did not act alone; Obama released several executive orders declaring the importance of weeding out bad rules.

Shelanski is tasked with the same directive. In the Bloomberg BNA interview, he called retrospective review a "priority" with a focus on institutionalizing a process that is doable for cash-strapped agencies. Agencies already produce reports on what rules they plan to revisit, revise and discard, but Shelanski spoke about strengthening the requirements.

He also elaborated on his view of OIRA's role -- namely, to make sure agencies have completed good cost-benefit analyses and considered alternatives.

"It is not OIRA's job ever to dictate the policy choices and the policy priorities of the agency," he told BNA. "It is not my job as administrator to tell a secretary or somebody in one of the departments, you should change your policy or you should be focusing on a different policy."

But, in part, Shelanski's job does require him to move forward the administration's agenda. Georgetown's Vladeck theorized that White House control tied Sunstein's hands.

"One of the problems I think Cass had was things didn't necessarily stop at his desk -- a fair amount didn't stop at his desk," he said. "I don't know whether Howard is going to be able to avoid that."

But Vladeck and Scott Morton emphasized the value of Shelanski's economist background. By being fluent in what Scott Morton called the "common language" of economics, Shelanski knows, for example, the value and limits of a cost-benefit analysis.

Shelanski "may be less trapped by the cold economic analysis and more willing to take a harder look at the variables that are harder to quantify," Vladeck said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Nicole Soulanille no longer works at Bechtel.

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