Cass Sunstein: The Obama Administration's Ambivalent Regulator

OBAMA'S BIG MISTAKE: Ambivalent Regulator Cass Sunstein

When President Barack Obama let it be known in January 2009 that he had selected Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein to be his regulatory czar, it was an early example of how some of his staffing decisions would undercut his lofty campaign promises.

The 56-year-old is an old friend of Obama from the days when they both taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, a pre-eminent egghead, the country's most cited law professor and an expert in behavioral economics.

But he's hardly an activist regulator, something the Wall Street Journal editorial board immediately recognized when it called his selection "a promising sign" -- while the OpenLeft blog labeled Sunstein a "concern troll."

Many consumer advocates, environmentalists and even other Obama-appointed regulators expected to see the administration take bold new steps to protect citizens and the planet. But with Sunstein in charge, it hasn't happened.

Sunstein runs the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced "Oh, Ira"), a deceptively innocuous-sounding part of the White House Office of Management and Budget that Washington insiders recognize as one of the presidency's most powerful offices.

Regulatory rulemaking involves determining exactly how the federal government will enforce laws affecting such things as worker, consumer and food safety and the environment -- and OIRA, charged with reviewing all rulemakings and information-collection requests from the executive branch agencies, sits smack in the center of that process. OIRA analysts are supposed to rigorously examine proposed regulations and reject or revise them as necessary, based on interagency concerns and whether the costs of policy proposals outweigh their benefits.

The OIRA administrator can also spur and accelerate regulations in areas found to be lacking. But congressional and academic researchers have found that, practically speaking, OIRA's primary function throughout its history has been to rein in agency proposals to suit White House policy -- and, of course, politics.

During the eight years of the Bush administration in particular, OIRA was one of the most important tools vice president Dick Cheney and other officials employed to build a broad legacy of regulatory retreat and wink-and-a-nod enforcement.

Some things have certainly changed in the Obama era. Sunstein has allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, several major environmental regulations. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sunstein expresses satisfaction with OIRA's accomplishments thus far. "I think the administration has issued a number of smart, effective rules that are protecting safety, health, welfare and our environment."

"What we've done is different from the Bush administration," he says. "But it's been very conscious to proceed in a way that doesn't hurt people in an economic downturn."

He cites a long list of achievements. Among them:

  • The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were given approval in 2010 to set new standards to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and mandate improvements in fuel economy.
  • Last year, OIRA established a baseline for the "social cost of carbon" so that agencies can incorporate the social benefits of reducing CO2 emissions into cost-benefit analyses of regulatory actions.
  • OIRA's most recent annual report to Congress lists 66 major rules issued in fiscal year 2010, and assesses the net benefit of rules finalized during Obama's first two fiscal years in office at about $35 billion -- compared to $2.3 billion for George W. Bush's first two years, and $10.6 billion for Bill Clinton's.

    But environmentalists, consumer advocates, labor unions and others who support assertive government regulation say many other significant proposed rules -- including regulations regarding coal ash, boiler emissions, toxic chemicals and worker safety -- have either been delayed by OIRA, micromanaged beyond recognition or scrapped entirely.

    And as the White House increasingly focuses on raising vast amounts of money for the 2012 reelection campaign, critics are seeing a disturbing new trend: After two years of relative inaction, Sunstein (and his boss) now appear to be actively using the regulatory process to ingratiate themselves with deep-pocketed corporate interests.

    In the last five months, Obama and Sunstein have issued highly-publicized orders to government regulators to look not forward, but backward -- requiring them to review existing regulations with an eye to making sure they aren't too onerous for business.

    In case this exercise's target audience wasn't clear already, Sunstein chose to go public in late May with the initial results of the effort in a speech at the ferociously anti-regulation American Enterprise Institute and in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

    The first triumph Sunstein cited in his op-ed was that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is cutting redundant reporting burdens on employers. "Businesses will no longer be saddled with the obligation to fill out unnecessary government forms, giving their employees more time to be productive and do real work," he wrote.

    But the proposals that emerged from the review turned out to be a grab-bag of new and rehashed ideas that didn't impress the business lobby much at all -- and only served to further alienate the reform community that has been such an important part of Obama's electoral base.

    "The problem is that they're wasting time trying to make the political move to the center to placate industry -- talking about the 'terrible cost of regulation' and the 'burdens of regulation' -- and in the meantime they've got important regulations waiting to go out, and they're pulling back on them," says Amy Sinden, a Temple University law professor and member of the Center for Progressive Reform, a network of pro-regulation academics that is funded by reform-minded foundations.

    Even more infuriating, say regulatory activists, is that Sunstein, as the nation's chief rule-writer, hasn't been calling attention to the extraordinary regulatory and enforcement deficit the country is facing. The only alarm bell he's rung is the Republican one.

    "The White House's leading guy on regulatory policy thinks the main problem is excessive regulation," marvels Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Reform. "He's acting as if it was George W. Bush's administration."

    "What am I going to do about this big mess" is what Sunstein should be asking himself, Steinzor says. "But instead, he's playing whack-a-mole with the agencies: They come out with one little rule and -- bam!"

    The agency officials Sunstein is said to be clobbering won't badmouth the White House publicly.

    "It's certainly no secret that we sometimes run into headwinds," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson tells HuffPost. "But that is not about the White House or in the person of Cass -- rather, it's the way OIRA operates. OIRA does lots and lots of meetings with lots and lots of stakeholders, so they're definitely hearing their share of complaints from the regulated community."

    Jackson says that the EPA and OIRA generally "work really well" with each other.

    "They are another step in the process, though," she says, "and they can be a time-consuming one."

    Sunstein says delays are inevitable in a complex bureaucracy, especially when several agencies need to be involved. "If there's a rule from any agency, and there are other parts of the government that would have relevant expertise, sometimes it takes very little time -- the interagency process -- and sometimes it takes longer."

    Regardless, he says, "EPA and OIRA have an excellent working relationship, and it is wonderful to be working with Lisa Jackson, in particular."


    Ever since January, when President Obama issued an executive order launching a regulatory review intended to eliminate unjustified costs on business, the language that he and Sunstein, who is leading the effort, have used to describe the role of government rulemaking has been decidedly corporate.

    Progressives see the White House as trying to cozy up to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the hugely powerful lobbying group for corporate interests. The Chamber proclaims that over-regulation is "the single biggest challenge to jobs, global competitiveness, and the future of American enterprise."

    That's a viewpoint that the White House's critics see as far-fetched and, in fact, damaging.

    "What has happened is, the administration has embraced far too much of the Chamber of Commerce rhetoric," says Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a consumer group primarily funded by contributions from its 80,000 members. "The effect is to ratify the narrative -- which is untrue -- from the Chamber and the big-business lobby. And it fuels them."

    In a recent review of regulatory studies, the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that real-world evidence doesn't support the Chamber's argument -- and that the overall benefits of regulations consistently and significantly exceed their costs. It also found some evidence that regulations can even have some small, positive employment effects.

    The White House obviously doesn't see itself as pandering to corporate America, Weissman says. "From their point of view, they're showing their reasonableness. But it puts them in a defensive posture."

    "The administration overall is giving too much credence to the business opposition to rules," says Peg Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO. "It is frustrating to see them responding to issues which really have no legitimacy."

    Indeed, far from arguing with the foes of regulation, Sunstein is more likely to try to appease them. At a House hearing in January, for instance, Sunstein's response to being constantly hectored by Republicans was to fall all over himself agreeing with them.

    When one suggested that regulations might kill jobs, Sunstein replied: "Oh, we very much -- you're exactly right, congressman. That is our focus. That's the focus of this executive order -- to make sure that regulations are helpful to economic growth."

    Reformers, meanwhile, think about all the effort that's been put into the review as time poorly spent.

    "I've no doubt that the individuals who were forced to put this look-back review together could have been spending their time on much more important activities," says Celeste Monforton, a former Labor Department official who now teaches public health at George Washington University. "Talk about a paperwork exercise."

    "They should be figuring out ways to streamline the rulemaking process so it doesn't take five or 10 years to get a worker safety rule out," Monforton adds. "That's what they should be spending their brain power on, rather than trying to appease the business community."

    Sunstein dismisses out of hand the notion that the review -- which spanned four months and produced 30 reports totaling over 500 pages -- took time away from more important things.

    "I can't think of anything that's not been done because of the review," he says. Asked repeatedly how that could be, he gives that same answer, time and again.

    He also seems unfazed by the charge that his language has emboldened the administration's enemies.

    "I would think that to say 'regulations cost jobs' or 'regulations create jobs' is too simple, and we need to look at the regulation," he says.

    With Sunstein refusing to take sides, it is left to a White House spokeswoman, Meg Reilly, who is sitting in on HuffPost's interview with Sunstein, to clarify the administration's position on the Chamber's view that regulations stifle jobs. "I think it's safe to say that the administration fundamentally does not agree with that premise," she says.

    Sunstein then restates his view that OIRA places a value on "balance, rather than for a one-sided extreme approach to regulation."

    Reilly again weighs in: "The notion that more regulation is bad for business and less regulation is good for business... is just wrong."


    Sunstein is half of one of Washington’s wonkiest power couples. His wife, Samantha Power, is a longtime human rights crusader who is now a senior National Security Council adviser to the president. She is considered central to Obama’s thinking about intervention in Libya.

    Sunstein is probably best known for co-authoring the best-selling book "Nudge" with Richard Thaler, which argues that the government can and should nudge -- rather than force -- people into making better decisions.

    Some of Sunstein's academic writing has a decidedly liberal bent, and the notion of a master regulator using the levers of power to manipulate the populace has fed some hysterical criticism of him. Glenn Beck has described Sunstein as "the most evil man, the most dangerous man in America," a latter-day Goebbels ready to "control your every move."

    But in real life, Sunstein is far from a wild-eyed socialist puppetmaster. Indeed, a considerable chunk of his extensive academic writing is devoted to the rigors of cost-benefit analysis, a method of assessing policy that weighs outcomes against the price of achieving them -- a methodology that has often been criticized for undercounting intangible societal benefits of certain policies or actions.

    Sunstein, for instance, has written that "[o]rdinary people have difficulty calculating probabilities," and that they tend to overreact to dangers caused by such things as toxic chemicals in their drinking water. Cost-benefit analysis, he wrote, is "a natural corrective" to the "intense emotional reactions" those ordinary people have, allowing regulators to reach a reasoned, appropriate conclusion.

    At any other time -- during, say, an era when the financial system didn't almost implode and millions of gallons of oil hadn't seeped into the Gulf of Mexico -- Sunstein might not have had so many critics.

    But disastrous regulatory failures have scarred the first few years of the Obama administration. In addition to the financial crisis and the BP oil spill, the country has endured the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, along with a bevy of food- and toy-related health scares and other dangers. Now climate change is increasingly threatening the environment.

    There arguably hasn't been such a dire need for wide-ranging new federal rules in a century, since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and their fellow muckrakers exposed the predations of unrestrained capitalism and helped usher in an era of regulatory reform and enhanced corporate oversight.

    Yet the Obama-Sunstein team hasn't embraced that challenge.

    On the legislative side, even with a Democratic Congress, Obama bungled his shot at a climate bill, accepted a watered-down version of financial reform and whiffed on mine safety. And now, of course, the Republican Party controls the House.

    Regulatory rulemaking is one of the few things presidents can do unilaterally. But even in that domain, Obama and Sunstein have responded haltingly.

    "I get the impression that there's not a lot of support for doing things that could become flashpoints of opposition," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower group funded primarily by pro-reform foundations. Health, safety and environmental issues "are distractions and are to be used, when you can, as bargaining chips."

    Sunstein, meanwhile, shows no sign of going anywhere soon. Unlike other administration academics -- such as White House economic advisers Christina Roemer and Austan Goolsbee -- who quit their jobs rather than lose tenure at their universities, Sunstein isn't watching the clock.

    "I have lost tenure," he says.


    The thing that seems to delight Sunstein the most these days is not passing regulations, but stopping them in their tracks.

    Back in February, in a White House blog post titled "Smarter Regulation," Sunstein bragged about having blocked five incipient regulations in the name of reducing the regulatory burden on small business.

    One of them was a minor, milquetoast proposal from OSHA to add a column in injury and illness reporting forms for ergonomic-related injuries. Literally, all it called for was a little check box -- a check box that, in fact, used to be on that very form before the Bush administration eliminated it.

    OIRA held up the proposed rule for more than six months, then had it pulled. OSHA's news release said that was in order to allow for "greater input from small businesses on the impact of the proposal."

    That's what passes for a victory in Sunstein's OIRA.

    What else was Sunstein so pleased about blocking? There was also a rule on noise standards, which, like the checkbox, was an OSHA proposal. Both had been targets of the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry lobbyists, according to Monfornton.

    Three other changes involved rollbacks or exemptions to provisions on the books at the Food and Drug Administration, the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services.

    "Taken together in such a short amount of time," says Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, a group that holds the White House accountable, "there is a potential perception that this administration is catering to the business interests around the same time that they’re gearing up for the 2012 election."

    Despite all their efforts, however, nothing Sunstein or anyone else in the Obama administration has done has mollified the Chamber of Commerce or the GOP leadership in Congress, who have launched a full-scale attack on the very notion of regulation.

    One bill Republicans have pushed is the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would require congressional approval of all new rules with an economic impact of $100 million or more annually. That would hobble, if not entirely paralyze, the rulemaking process across the executive branch.

    Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have proposed another bill that would require federal agencies to reassess the impact on small businesses of every significant regulation on their books. That would empower a minor Small Business Administration official to nullify any rule he or she decides has not been adequately assessed.

    That proposal made it to the Senate floor on June 9 in the form of an amendment to an unrelated bill -- and won 53 votes, with six Democrats joining a united and garrulous Republican block. But it needed 60 votes to pass a Democratic filibuster.

    Even if Democrats can still block bills like that from becoming law, the GOP is actively pursuing another goal: defunding the regulatory agencies -- so even if there are rules, the agencies won't have the ability to enforce them.

    Sunstein has long had good relations with the city's think-tank deregulators, who early on realized that his philosophy and theirs weren't that far apart. But for the ferocious GOP partisans and their corporate sponsors, there's a war on -- and Sunstein's on the other side.

    After Sunstein announced the initial results of the look-back, Bill Kovacs, who oversees regulatory affairs for the Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a blog post that the output of the regulatory review was "not nearly enough." What's needed instead, he wrote, "is a plan to make our flawed regulatory system smarter, less intrusive, and more accountable."

    A June 2 memo from Chamber president Tom Donohue to his board of directors, sent after the regulatory review's results were announced, was as strident as ever. "As the nation struggles fitfully to emerge from a financial crisis and deep recession, the explosion of new regulatory activity, combined with the existing regulatory burden, has emerged as the biggest single challenge facing businesses, job creation, and the future of our free enterprise system," he wrote.

    "They want to soften opposition from the business community," says Weissman, from Public Citizen. "Do they want corporate contributions? Yes they do."

    But after all that, says Steinzor, "they're not going to get a single contribution that they wouldn't have gotten already."

    "Obama is trying to have this love affair with industry," says Sinden, "and industry is yawning."


    Sunstein is unfailingly courteous. Almost every question he gets asked in public, no matter how unwelcome, is always a "great question," as Sunstein often puts it.

    But lately, he has also been a bit of a scold.

    In his AEI speech, he tut-tutted what he called "a national debate over regulation that, in recent years in particular, has become far too polarized and stylized in a way that hasn't been helpful to progress."

    Here's how he described one group, which consists of the administration's natural allies: "In recent months, some people have stressed with passion the crucial importance of regulatory safeguards including rules that reduce deaths on the highways, prevent fraud and abuse, keep our air and water clean and ensure that the food supply is safe."

    Here's how he described another group, which consists of the administration's die-hard enemies: "In the recent period, perhaps particularly in the last month, other people have objected with equal passion to expensive regulations and burdensome mandates that impair competitiveness undermine innovation, weaken growth and that ultimately cost jobs."

    Both groups, he suggested, are equally misguided. "In the abstract, these two passionately held positions make legitimate points." But, he said, "in important ways the polar positions are just stuck, and outmoded and in decreasingly helpful debates from decades passed."

    Does Sunstein really see an equivalency between both sides in the regulatory debate? "The view that the regulations are necessary to protect public welfare is in many cases correct; the view that regulation can impose unjustified costs is also in some case correct," he tells HuffPost.

    Isn't one more urgent than the other right now? "I don't really have a lot to say about that," Sunstein says.

    For progressives, Exhibit A in the Sunstein critique is the fate of the Obama administration's proposed coal ash regulations.

    Coal ash, or fly ash, is what's left over after coal is burned for energy. It's the country's second-largest industrial waste stream, after municipal garbage. It's stored in about 1,300 landfills and slurry ponds across the nation -- including one pond that in December 2008 burst through its retaining walls and spilled a billion gallons of dangerous sludge onto 300 acres of rural Tennessee. (The BP oil spill, by comparison, released 170 million gallons.)

    Coal ash is incredibly toxic -- it includes heavy metals known to cause cancer and neurological problems -- and poses a threat to drinking water and the environment. Yet its storage and re-use -- in everything from concrete to cosmetics -- remains unregulated by the federal government.

    Back in the fall of 2009, the EPA proposed a strong rule ordering that coal ash be treated as hazardous waste. A little over six months later, however, the proposal that emerged from the OIRA process was nearly unrecognizable. It actually offered two options, one of which would label the ash nonhazardous and leave enforcement to the states.

    Environmentalists were devastated. And there's little hope now that a final rule will emerge anytime soon.

    Sunstein denies responsibility for the coal-ash turnaround. "It was a highly collegial process involving many people working collaboratively, including those at EPA and OIRA," he says. At the end of the process, "everyone at the policymaking level thought that it was the right way to go."

    Steinzor isn't satisfied with Sunstein's explanation. "You can see the documents that went in the door, and you can see the documents that came out the door," she says, pointing to a red-line version that the EPA actually posted to the rulemaking docket on Sunstein's own web site. For Sunstein to blame other agencies, Steinzor says, is "like the sheriff blaming his posse."


    In the opening weeks and months of the Obama presidency, the White House and the cabinet agencies were full of optimism and lofty goals. In many agencies, new political appointees -- and many career employees -- described a tremendous sense of urgency. There were so many things that either hadn't happened at all during the eight years of the Bush administration, or that needed to be fixed.

    Just 10 days into his presidency, Obama scrapped Bush-era changes to the regulatory review process that had, among other things, placed politically-appointed regulatory commissars in each agency and required agencies to identify "the specific market failure" that justified government intervention.

    Then, an April 2009 memo from Obama gave agencies 100 days to develop a new approach to federal regulatory review. He also solicited public comments.

    Nothing emerged for nearly two years, however, until Jan. 18 of this year, when the White House finally issued a limp executive order that basically reaffirmed the principles that had been guiding the office for years -- and called for that retroactive review, to boot. Sunstein had punted.

    "I think a lot of people thought his big brain would create massive reform in the rulemaking process," says Bass, from OMB Watch. "Instead, the brain has been applied to the review of the specific rules that come in from all the agencies."

    "Nothing has changed in terms of the process," he adds. "We do see a huge change in the way the agencies are operating, but we haven't seen much change in the way OIRA operates. It’s the same process."

    Bass is reconciled to the reason why: "Every president wants to have a sledgehammer to carry out his or her own policies," he says. "OIRA is that sledgehammer."

    Sinden says that before Sunstein was given the job, she had hoped for an OIRA director who would advocate on behalf of the regulatory agencies with Congress and help identify national priorities. "But instead it's kind of same old, same old," she says. "We still get the impression that OIRA is still a funnel for industry lobbying."

    "One thing that would have been nice to see is a more systematic approach towards identifying areas of under-regulation and under-enforcement," says Nina Mendelson, a University of Michigan Law School professor who has written extensively about the rulemaking process.

    OIRA could, for instance, help agencies identify areas that are under-regulated with what is called a "prompt letter." But Sunstein hasn't issued a single one.

    What Sunstein has done, however, is make sure he sticks his finger in every pie. Mendelson says she looked through the data from 2010. "I couldn't find a single economically significant rule that was reported as approved without change, out of the over 130 economically significant rules that went through regulatory review."

    Even under Bush, OIRA left about 15 percent of the rules it looked at alone, according to Mendelson's calculations.

    For his part, Sunstein says the way he runs OIRA isn't so much about him. It's about Obama. "The president supports centralized OIRA review," Sunstein tells HuffPost. "He made that very clear on January 18" -- the day he issued his executive order.


    OIRA is actually a regulatory bottleneck by design: All significant executive-branch regulations must get the office's approval before they are formally proposed or finalized. As a result, special interests get the equivalent of two free kicks -- two more chances to appeal directly to the White House to kill any rule they dislike.

    The independent regulatory institutions, like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, don't go through OIRA, but all the other agencies do. For them, OIRA is unavoidable, inserted into decision-making at a host of levels. The office's primary mandate, in fact, is to oversee the omnipresent Paperwork Reduction Act. ("If you want to ask more than nine people a question about anything, it has to be cleared by OIRA," explains Monforton.)

    Since Ronald Reagan opened the OIRA office in 1981, Republicans have used it to particular advantage to pursue an anti-regulatory agenda, defanging environmental rules on things like water runoff and climate change -- even blocking attempts to collect information that might lead to regulations.

    "OIRA was inaugurated by Reagan and it came out of the box extremely political," explains OMB Watch's Bass. The office's first director hearkened from the American Enterprise Institute, and "all the thinking of the AEI got translated right to OIRA."

    When the first President Bush put Vice President Dan Quayle in charge of a Council on Competitiveness, OIRA was his enforcer. "They were just a conduit for campaign contributors, very powerful special interests," Bass says.

    The office arguably reached the peak, or nadir, of its power under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. When it came to proposed rules emerging from the bureaucracy, Bass says, Bush political appointees in the agencies "turned off the flow; OIRA dealt with any of the leaks."

    Under the second Bush, OIRA changed the methodology of its cost-benefit analyses to "serve the interests of the regulated community," Bass explains. "So the game was rigged."

    These days, about 50 analysts staff Sunstein's OIRA office. Based on what HuffPost could determine about their start dates, most of them appear to have been hired in Republican administrations, especially the most recent one. They serve nearly anonymously -- there is no public staff list -- and wielding great influence.

    And while regulatory agencies like the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are repositories of experts in their fields -- people who in some cases have spent decades studying the issues for which they are responsible -- OIRA's desk jockeys have different backgrounds.

    "The one thing they know is cost-benefit analysis -- and only from an economist's point of view," Steinzor says. "Not from a risk assessor's point of view, or an engineer's point of view or a scientist's point of view."

    What they may be best at, in fact, is saying "no."

    "I would say that OIRA has always been a brake on regulation," says the AFL-CIO's Seminario. "That's who they are. That's the culture: slow down, delay, block."

    According to the executive order that governs it, OIRA has 90 days to review a proposal and can get one 30-day extension. But according to OIRA's own regulatory dashboard, 31 out of 144 pending requests -- or more than 1 in 5 -- have been waiting 90 days or longer.

    Among them are 10 rules the EPA submitted in 2010, the oldest being a May 2010 proposal to add several types of chemicals, including phthalates, to a warning list for dangerous industrial chemicals that increasingly pervade our air, soil, water, foods and products. But industry opposition appears to have kept the proposal stuck in OIRA review.

    Sunstein defends OIRA against charges of foot-dragging. Individual rules can be thousands of pages long, he tells HuffPost. "And the review time is often a product not of OIRA's own interest and concerns, but of interagency interests and concerns."

    In theory, Sunstein substitutes nudging for sweeping reform. But in practice, much of what OIRA does is more like niggling

    For example, OSHA recently launched a survey that is the first step toward a major update of safety and health standards for workers. The goal is to require employers to establish programs in which employers and employees work together to identify and address workplace hazards. It's considered to be one of OSHA administrator David Michaels' signature initiatives, and would therefore be expected to be a fairly high priority at the White House.

    But it took more than four months to get the survey through OIRA's review process. The office ended up making no significant changes -- but with a huge lobbying battle on tap, those four months may have stalled the proposal long enough that it won't go anywhere unless Obama wins re-election.


    What has happened at OIRA is important in its own right, but it also reflects how Obama has chosen to employ the power of his presidency. OIRA, after all, is a place where the president and his appointees can act unilaterally; where they have complete control. Those who are scared of Obama find that terrifying -- almost regardless of what he is actually doing.

    Those who expected more and better from him feel let down.

    "They've done some very good things, but the overall picture is disappointing at best," says Public Citizen's Weissman.

    Obama and his team should be more aggressive in attacking arguments they know are unfounded and pushing back against demands they know are ridiculous, Weissman says. "For decades we've been fighting over cost-benefit analysis," he says. "Now they just want cost analysis. If you don't fundamentally challenge that framework, you're ceding too much.

    "All signs are that they are imposing additional constraints on themselves in the one area where they have the most freedom to operate," Weissman adds. "The result is we're going to have less protection for health and safety for consumers and workers, the environment is going to be more poisoned, people are going to be less economically secure -- all because of a reluctance to offend the big money interests that dominate Washington politics."


    Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.

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