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March 02, 2007

Bush administration "guides" regulators over cliffs

Genevieve Smith has an excellent article in the American Prospect about how the Bush administration is quietly breaking the government. Having lost control of the legislative branch, the White House giving itself more power to over government agencies by installing apparatchiks to oversee regulatory agencies:  

In fact, such efforts may already be underway. In January, the White House released an executive order updating guidelines for federal regulatory agencies. The new executive order increases the administration's hold on the rulemaking process by requiring a political appointee within each agency to approve all new regulations and White House review of agency guidance documents.

Guidance, in Washington speak, is an informal interpretation or clarification of existing policy -- including suggestions for best practices and technical descriptions -- that tells businesses how the agency plans to enforce the regulation. In tandem with the executive order, the White House's Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum to agencies offering new best practices for agency guidance documents. OMB's "Good Guidance Practice Bulletin" would require internal review of significant guidance documents by senior agency officials, as well as notice and comment on guidance documents deemed "economically significant."

Together with the executive order, the bulletin extends the reach of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a little-known but powerful office of the White House, into an area of policy that had in the past been left up to experts within the agency. When the modern administrative structure of the U.S. government was first created under the Administrative Procedures Act in 1946, the stringent requirements for promulgating regulation were not applied to agency guidance. Guidance from agencies was never intended to receive the same bureaucratic scrutiny as regulations because, for one, unlike regulations, guidance documents don't carry the force of law. [Am Prosp.]

These new "regulatory policy officers" will have the final say about whether the recommendations of experts found their way into official advisories about how to implement policy. Worse, the communications between the RPO and the agency would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. So, for example, if the experts at the Mine Safety and Health Administration issue some inconvenient guidance about the implications of an occupational safety law, the RPO will be able to secretly squelch that advice.

Ezra has a very good point:

This isn't bad simply because it opens the process up to political distortion, but because political appointees often lack expertise. I recently sat next to a Department of Energy political appointee whose experience for working on nuclear power was being a member of the Bush/Cheney reelection team. It's easier to reject regulations when you're both ideologically opposed to them in principle and don't actually understand the failures they're remedying.

It's hard to say how much difference this extra layer of political "guidance" will make in the short-term. It's not like our federal agencies are pouring out radical worker- and consumer-friendly advice as it is. The Bush administration has already done its best to fill government agencies with Republican cronies. Back when the Republicans controlled congress, that was easier to do.

Remember what a great job that nice Republican horse lawyer Michael Brown did at FEMA? The Republicans have already driven many of the real experts out of agencies like the FDA and the CDC and replaced them with party stalwarts in need of patronage appointments. Bush recently installed a stooge for the mine industry to run the MSHA. The list goes on and on.

The idea that the White House has given itself permanent, secret political influence over regulatory agencies is truly disturbing. I trust that a Democratic administration would put real experts back in the federal bureaucracy. However, I'm not confident that future presidents will voluntarily give up the extra layer of political influence.


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Comments

Congress should require transparency regarding communication from the political appointees to keep expert opinions out of reports.

If FOIA doesn't already cover that, Congress can amend FOIA.

RE: "It's hard to say how much difference this extra layer of political 'guidance' will make in the short-term."

In the long term, though, the Bush Administration wants to build nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants with new designs.

If a hack appointed by George W. Bush brings about unsafe designs for these things, it makes a nuclear accident likely.

There are othere reasons why the US shouldn't build new nuclear weapons (non-proliferation) and new nuclear power plants (we don't have a place for existing nuclear waste) but bad design makes it worse.

I'm just saying that the Bush administration has already packed the federal agencies with cronies who issue the advice the government wants to hear. So, adding another layer of political bureaucracy may just entrench the life and death problems we already have. Look what happened with Michael Brown and FEMA.

I guess it all depends on who's left standing in each specific federal agency. Maybe the RPOs will subdue some remaining holdouts in the agencies that interpret the laws on nuclear power.

I know we have lots of readers who work for federal agencies, and we love gossip... Hint, hint.

When it was realized, about a century ago, that politcized bureaucracy was not benefiting anyone but a few crooked appointees and their friends, Congress made a decent though not perfect attempt to design political meddling out of the day to day, professional, functions of government: the Civil Service.

So Bush is blatently contravening the essential purpose of the Civil Service processes and guidlines for government employment. I think, as is becoming all too typical, that congreess stands by toothlessly letting Bush act with impunity both as maker and enforcer of laws...WHO in congress has done anything effective to arrest this degeneration of government?

Plenty to be alarmed about here. And as posts over at myDD point out...its been going on a long time but now that Bush has lost outright control of congress, he seems to have stepped up his quest for totalitarian levels of control by concentrating in the one channel that he thinks remains available to him.

Totally OT but I am too busy to open the other post--I would love to see the likes of yourself and Amanda holding forth at the Tank but thats 250 miles away...when are y'all coming up to Boston?

I don't recall who stated it first, but it's the antithesis of "a nation of laws" you're talking about- ie it's becoming "a nation of men" (& some predictable incompetence... but, worse- some blatant "weasel-run henhouses" eg Mark Rey at USDA). In the long run Bush can do, domestically, what he's done internationally- and that's Give the US Gov't a Bad Name- which suits the likes of those who wish the gov't ill (eg Grover Norquist), as well as those caugght up in the "paroxysms of Power" (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Abrams, Perle, Feith, etc etc)... ^..^

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