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Posted at 5:39 PM ET, 01/18/2011

Regulating the regulators

By Ezra Klein

I occasionally find it difficult to tell whether the Obama administration is doing something because it thinks it needs to be done, doing something because it thinks that it needs to preempt Congress from doing something worse, or both. A good example of this was the federal pay freeze: Did the White House think a federal pay freeze was a good substantive idea, a good political idea, or a good way to keep the Republicans from either cutting federal pay or freezing the number of workers who could be hired? I suspect it was a bit of two and a lot of three, but there's no real way to know.

I'm having a bit of the same feeling with the president's splashy op-ed promising "a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive." That could be the announcement of a major new initiative in the government to prune the out-of-date or overly costly regulations currently sitting on the books. Or it could be a way to preempt ideas like Mark Warner's regulatory paygo scheme or the GOP's plan to force a separate congressional vote "of any new federal regulation that has an annual cost to our economy of $100 million or more."

Without knowing the answer to this question, it's difficult to say what to think of Obama's announcement. If the White House really wants to cut some brush across the regulatory state, then maybe this is the start of something major. If they just want to show they're doing something about the regulatory state to keep Congress from doing something dumb, then it's probably not going to be such a major initiative. And reading the executive order, it's possible that the major part is not the bit that Obama is selling in the op-ed, where old regulations will be reviewed and taken off the books, but the changes to the regulatory process going forward, including the provision saying that new regulations must include a schedule for review and that much more information is posted online.

Whether the White House is doing a good job running the regulatory process gets too little attention. But it's also a hard thing to judge, as there aren't obvious benchmarks for what a "good" regulatory process looks like. This looks good to me, but maybe some of my readers will have more informed perspectives.

By Ezra Klein  | January 18, 2011; 5:39 PM ET
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Klein, above: "Without knowing the answer to this question, it's difficult to say what to think"

Klein parody at Patterico's earlier today: "I know Yglesias says we shouldn’t need to watch the clip to choose, but I’m with the Washington Post now, guys. We have higher standards. Which means, if you want to write things that totally ignore the facts, continue to do so as always — but just signal what you’re doing in code, so I have deniability."

Posted by: msoja | January 18, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

He is trying to show people he is more moderate than people give him credit for. The republicans have left a huge opening for him to take moderate/independent votes in 2012 by moving so far right to appease the Tea Party supporters.

That being said, this is just a review, it has no teeth because there are no specific regulations being mentioned. He is playing the communications game like the Republicans do. Announce a popular sounding proposal and dont get specific (like he did with the federal pay freeze), so there is nothing to criticize. This is just like the mysterious $100 billion in spending cuts the Republicans are going to make, its easy because they have yet to announce any specific cuts.

With the Republicans in charge of The House, Obama is not likely to have any legislative achievements the next two years, so he can handle routine business (debt limit, annual budgets, etc.) and focus on selling himself to independents and moderates to get re-elected in 2012.

Posted by: DeanofProgress | January 18, 2011 7:08 PM | Report abuse

One question I have is what the actual effect of any of this is, which makes me think it's more about symbolism and less about actually changing policy (though some agencies might slack off in this regard, and clearly he is giving some people a kick in particular direction). The Executive Branch is already authorized to do this kind of trimming of the regulations, and, in fact, federal agencies are required to continually review regulations to see if things should be changed because they are outdated or duplicative and have been required to do so for decades (compare executive order 12866 to his new one and you won't see a whole lot of changes). The "scientific integrity" section is new and interesting, but of course that is not what is highlighted in his attempts to preempt the right's war on regulation. . .
Here's a link to the executive order and the memo:

Posted by: ashleyb2 | January 18, 2011 8:20 PM | Report abuse

I believe it is a good thing.

I am sure periodically various Presidents might have asked for such 'pruning of regulations'; but do not remember off hand. So Obama's is a good start. Eventually there will be ways to measure the progress.

But think of this way - as our Republic becomes old, tremendous amount of 'dead wood' must have been accumulated. It is the efficiency thing. Where do you want 100 regulations - about say 'fire wood' or soldiers living with you as in 1800s or about deep water drilling in 21st century? Imagine that Gov. has limited shelf space - would it not make to have that space occupied what needs to be regulated today rather than allowing regulations to gather dust over there? Having computers do not make it easy, because it is about the cost of enforcing regulations. You want your tax dollars to be used for relevant enforcement only.

Posted by: umesh409 | January 18, 2011 10:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm almost certain the main reason is to preempt congress.
If Obama takes control of the regulation debate, he'll gain ownership of the bipartisan action. He'll be able to challenge partisan moves by the GOP in that arena without sounding partisan himself and to direct changes to outdated regulations that even hardcore liberals would admit are counterproductive.

Posted by: RCBII | January 19, 2011 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I find it impossible to square this statement

"We're also getting rid of absurd and unnecessary paperwork requirements that waste time and money. We're looking at the system as a whole to make sure we avoid excessive, inconsistent and redundant regulation. And finally, today I am directing federal agencies to do more to account for—and reduce—the burdens regulations may place on small businesses. Small firms drive growth and create most new jobs in this country. We need to make sure nothing stands in their way. "

with the 1099 reporting requirements in the new health care law.

Posted by: jnc4p | January 19, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

The most laughable suggestion yet proposed by our President. How much more will this cost us. Bureaucracy is a Cancer, it might be amenable to Radical Surgery. At least that's hopeful!

Posted by: liverkit | January 23, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

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