The Obama administration’s delay of costly regulations, including one to require rearview cameras on cars and light trucks, weakens a Republican line of attack ahead of the election.
President Barack Obama has been hammered by Republicans for promulgating expensive rules, and the party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, vows to do away with “job-killing regulation.” The camera requirement, mandated by a 2008 law signed by Republican President George W. Bush, was listed by the Obama administration last year as one of the five most expensive pending regulations, with an estimated price tag of as much as $2.7 billion.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week put off the backup-camera rule until as late as Dec. 31. It was LaHood’s second delay of the rule and came after the White House blocked new standards on ozone and slowed the regulation process for sulfur in gasoline and greenhouse gas emissions by power plants.
While the delays won’t stop Republicans from linking Obama to expensive rulemaking, “these types of decisions will lessen their impact,” said Dan Schnur, who was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Even if you assume these decisions were made for policy reasons, it’s still very smart politics.”
At the same time, Obama supporters “will swallow this and hope it gets done after the election,” said Schnur, now director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Normal Review Process
The White House Office of Management and Budget maintains that delays are part of the normal process of reviewing proposed regulations and ensuring that all interested parties have been heard.
“These are all complicated rules, at different stages of review, that require careful analysis,” Kenneth Baer, associate OMB director for communications and strategic planning, said in an e-mail. “It is a deliberate and extensive process undertaken by career staff, reviewing hundreds of thousands of comments and engaging all stakeholders to ensure that any standards are both effective as well as scientifically and legally sound.”
In the case of the backup-camera requirement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has “made significant progress toward a final rule” and believes further study is needed “to ensure the most protective and efficient rule possible,” Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, said in a statement. NHTSA is an agency of the Transportation Department.
Still, regulatory delays are coming earlier in presidential election years, said John D. Graham, former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB.
“Thirty years ago, this delay strategy did not begin until after Labor Day or so,” Graham, now the dean of the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, said in an e-mail. “But as the polarization and competitiveness of national politics have intensified, the delays have begun much earlier in the year of the election.”
A report released today by the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington-based research group focused on regulatory policy, found that 10 of 12 regulatory actions tracked by the organization had been delayed beyond timelines proposed by the Obama administration last June.
“All 12 rules were chosen originally because we thought the administration could easily get them done if the agencies proceeded in a reasonable but determined fashion,” Rena Steinzor, the center’s president, said in an interview. All or part of at least nine won’t be completed before the election, and even minimal delays will push the other three past November as well, she said.
Lunch at 8
“It’s almost like we’ve gone to lunch at 8 in the morning,” said Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “Usually you stop working closer to an election. These folks have stopped way early. I think they’ve just told the agencies not to rock the boat.”
Rules cited in the report include one for new limits on ozone, which at an estimated cost of $19 billion to $90 billion was the most expensive regulation under consideration by the Obama White House. That rule at the Environmental Protection Agency was delayed by Obama until 2013.
“With any standard, EPA is engaged in a deliberative and extensive process, reviewing hundreds of thousands of comments and engaging all stakeholders to ensure that any standards are both effective and scientifically and legally sound,” Betsaida Alcantara, EPA press secretary, said in an e-mail.
Other behind-schedule rules would apply to storm water, mountaintop removal mining and the disposal of coal ash, according to the center’s report. Another would allow the EPA to compile a list of “chemicals of concern” that would include some widely used plastics additives.
The EPA also missed a deadline in September for issuing regulations concerning greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, pledging to issue them in the first month of 2012. It missed that deadline, and now the first round of rules is being reviewed by the OMB.
Those rules, though, would cover just new power plants. Regulations for existing plants haven’t been sent to the White House yet, and the EPA hasn’t said when those will be proposed. Meanwhile, emissions rules for refineries aren’t being prepared now, and won’t be issued this year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Feb. 28.
The Obama administration also has held back on a rule for curbing sulfur emissions in cars and light trucks. The American Petroleum Institute warned last month that the rule could increase the price of gasoline by 25 cents per gallon.
Subsequently, EPA assistant administrator Gina McCarthy told lawmakers in a letter that the agency had narrowed the proposed rule and expected costs to increase by “approximately one penny per gallon.”
Nonetheless, there’s little indication the Obama administration will move ahead with a rule anytime soon, said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental group.
“It’s a classic case of presidential election year where the incumbent doesn’t want to give opponents any opportunity to rail about an issue that can be demagogued,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview. “Clearly the White House is looking at the price of gas and saying ‘Do we want to do anything that will add even one cent to the price of gas, and they’re going, ‘No.’”