Home > Environment > Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment | ProgressiveReform.org

Behind Closed Doors at the White House: How Politics Trumps Protection of Public Health, Worker Safety, and the Environment | ProgressiveReform.org

This OIRA_Meetings_1111 is a collaborative effort of the following individuals: Rena Steinzor is a Professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and the President of the Center for Progressive Reform.  Michael Patoka is a law student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and an intern at the Center for Progressive Reform.  James Goodwin is a Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform.  We thank Suzann Langrall, Coordinator for the Environmental Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, for helping to gather and organize the data central to this report.

Tucked in a corner of the Old Executive Office Building, an obscure group of some three dozen economists exerts extraordinary power over federal rules intended to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment.  Known officially as the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced oh-EYE-ra), this unit reports to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but operates as a free-ranging squad that pulls an astounding number of draft regulatory actions—some 6,194 over the ten-year period covered in this report—into a dragnet that operates behind closed doors.  No policy that might distress influential industries, from oil production to coal mining to petrochemical manufacturing, goes into effect without OIRA’s approval.  A steady stream of industry lobbyists—appearing some 3,760 times over the ten-year period we studied—uses OIRA as a court of last resort when they fail to convince experts at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to weaken pending regulations.

OIRA keeps secret the substance of the changes it makes to 84 percent of EPA and 65 percent of other agencies’ submissions.  Despite this effort to obscure the impact of its work, every single study of its performance, including this one, shows that OIRA serves as a one-way ratchet, eroding the protections that agency specialists have decided are necessary under detailed statutory mandates, following years—even decades—of work.  OIRA review is tacked on at the end of rulemakings that involve careful review of the authorizing statutes, lengthy field investigation, extended advice from scientific advisory panels, numerous meetings with affected stakeholders, days of public hearings, voluminous public comments, and thousands of hours of staff work.  When all else fails, regulated industries make  a bee-line for OIRA’s back door. (For an illustration of how OIRA’s review fits into  the rulemaking process.

This report is the first comprehensive effort to unpack the dynamics of OIRA’s daily work, specifically with regard to the only information that is readily available to the public about its internal review process:  records of its meetings with lobbyists.  These records are perhaps the only accessible accounting of OIRA’s influence, and they demonstrate that OIRA has persistently ignored the unequivocal mandates of three presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—by refusing to disclose the differences between regulatory drafts as they enter review and the final versions that emerge at the end of that process.  Our study reveals that OIRA routinely substitutes its judgment for that of the agencies, second-guessing agency efforts to implement specific mandates assigned to them by Congress in statutes such as the Clean Air Act, the Food Quality Protection Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.  In so doing, OIRA systematically undermines the clear congressional intent that such decisions be made by specified agencies’ neutral experts in the law, science, engineering, and economics applicable to a given industry.

The study covers OIRA meetings that took place between October 16, 2001 and June 1, 2011.  During this decade-long period, OIRA conducted 6,194 separate “reviews” of regulatory proposals and final rules.  According to the available data, these reviews triggered 1,080 meetings with OIRA staff involving 5,759 appearances by outside participants.  Our analysis, which is the most exhaustive evaluation of the impact of White House political interference on the mandates of agencies assigned to protect public health, worker safety, and the environment, reveals a highly biased process that is far more accessible to regulated industries than to public interest groups.

Of course, it is possible—and senior OIRA officials have claimed—that meetings with outside parties do not drive their final decisions on agency proposals.  To accept this claim, any objective observer must reject the dual assumptions that underlie the entire regulatory system:  first, that a pluralistic process based on a level playing field is crucial to a wise result, and second, that experts in law, science, engineering, economics, and other disciplines are best equipped to evaluate the self-serving claims of private-sector stakeholders.  Neither assumption guides OIRA.  Instead, OIRA’s playing field is sharply tilted toward industry interests, a process that demeans all disciplines except economists practicing OIRA’s narrow brand of cost-benefit analysis, and a wide avenue that allows political considerations to trump expert judgments much of the time.  As just one example of the impact of this disturbingly secretive process, consider the participation of William Daley, President Obama’s Chief of Staff, in OIRA deliberations that eventually compelled EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to promulgate a National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone pollution that she had described as “legally indefensible” only a few months earlier.

About the Center for Progressive Reform

Founded in 2002, the Center for Progressive Reform is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and educational organization comprising a network of scholars across the nation dedicated to protecting health, safety, and the environment through analysis and commentary.  CPR believes sensible safeguards in these areas serve important shared values, including doing the best we can to prevent harm to people and the environment, distributing environmental harms and benefits fairly, and protecting the earth for future generations.  CPR rejects the view that the economic efficiency of private markets should be the only value used to guide government action.  Rather, CPR supports thoughtful government action and reform to advance the well-being of human life and the environment.  Additionally, CPR believes people play a crucial role in ensuring both private and public sector decisions that result in improved protection of consumers, public health and safety, and the environment. Accordingly, CPR supports ready public access to the courts, enhanced public participation, and improved public access to information.  CPR is grateful to the Public Welfare Foundation for funding this white paper.

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