FedSoc Blog

Cass Sunstein to Quit Obama Administration


by Publius
Posted August 06, 2012, 7:43 AM

The New York Times reports:

Cass R. Sunstein, who wielded enormous power as the White House overseer of federal regulation, came to Washington to test his theories of human behavior and economic efficiency in the laboratory of the federal government. Now he is departing with a record that left many business interests disappointed and environmental, health and consumer advocates even more unhappy.

Mr. Sunstein, 57, who projected an air of disheveled academic detachment while becoming one of the Obama administration’s most provocative figures, announced Friday that he was leaving government to return to Harvard Law School.

Applying a cost-benefit analysis to his reviews of proposed rules, he said his goal was simply to make the nation’s regulatory system “as sensible as possible.”

His critics saw it differently.

“Cass Sunstein is the most well-connected and smartest guy who’s ever held the job,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform and a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. “But he’s also done untold damage.”

As administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, he reviewed the rules implementing President Obama’s health care act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law. He backed major environmental initiatives, including higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and new toxic emissions rules for power plants. He approved the revamping of the decades-old food pyramid (it is now a “plate”), the tightening of salmonella rules for eggs and a crackdown on prison rape. He midwifed a deal between appliance manufacturers and the Department of Energy to make refrigerators more energy efficient.

A close friend of President Obama’s from their days on the University of Chicago Law School faculty, Mr. Sunstein had his choice of high-profile positions in the administration. He opted for the obscure Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (familiarly known as OIRA, pronounced “oh, Ira”), a unit of the White House Office of Management and Budget that reviews every regulation proposed by an executive branch agency.

Few proposed rules escaped his gaze or his editor’s pen. Of the hundreds of regulations issued by the administration as of late last year, three-quarters were changed at OIRA, often at the urging of corporate interests, according to an analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform, a liberal-leaning group that monitors federal regulation. For rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, the figure was closer to 80 percent, the group found. In virtually every case, the rule was weakened, the group claimed.

Professor Steinzor cited Mr. Sunstein’s role in the killing of the E.P.A.’s proposed tightening of the standard for ozone pollution, the indefinite delay of rules governing coal ash disposal and the withdrawal earlier this year of a proposed update of child agricultural labor standards. . . .

In addition to reviewing proposed rules, Mr. Sunstein’s office also conducted a “look back” at every regulation already on the books, with an eye toward slashing outdated rules and streamlining the system. The initiative has already started to bear fruit. Federal agencies have so far proposed 500 changes, with 100 enacted or close to being finalized.

Business lobbies and Republicans in Congress complain frequently about “job-killing” regulations, citing rules like the E.P.A.’s new standard for carbon emissions from power plants (recently upheld by a federal appeals court) and the Department of Labor’s new worker-safety rules. But Mr. Sunstein won grudging praise from conservatives, who said he was more approachable and realistic about the costs of doing business than many top officials in federal agencies.

“Cass Sunstein appeared to recognize the harm overly burdensome regulations inflict on economic growth and job creation — although he was not able to stop the tsunami of regulations enacted by the Obama administration,” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.

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