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Worried About Regulations? This Site's for You

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Every administration is criticized for insufficient transparency, and the Obama administration has been no exception. But last week, the White House quietly released a new app, involving federal regulation, that represents a major advance in open government.

It could have a real effect on what emerges from the last month of the Obama presidency -- and it is likely to have a serious impact on the Trump administration as well, especially because the president-elect promises to put a priority on regulatory reform.

The app is called RegInfo Mobile, and it’s a lot more interesting than its name. By clicking on “regulatory review,” you can find a list of every regulation now under consideration by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

These are the most important rules issued by executive agencies; if they are under consideration, they are likely to come out, but they can be stopped if people inside the government are convinced that they are not a good idea. Instead of getting abstractions, partisan accusations or happy talk, you can immediately see what the Obama administration is actually thinking about doing in its final weeks. You can also get a snapshot of what the world of regulation is really like.

As of now, 88 regulations are under review. For example, the Department of Energy is considering an energy-efficiency regulation for portable air conditioners. The Department of Agriculture is contemplating a rule to protect the health and well-being of horses by regulating practices at horse shows and auctions. The Department of Interior wants to finalize a policy to specify the voluntary actions that property owners can take to reduce the risk of federal intervention under the Endangered Species Act.

For members of Congress, journalists, interested citizens and the incoming administration, RegInfo Mobile is a gold mine. If you are worried about “midnight regulations” from the Obama administration, you can find essentially all of the possibilities here -- and you can immediately make your objections heard, or initiate corrective action after Jan. 20.

There’s a good chance that the Republicans’ worst fears will be alleviated, because the list looks pretty reasonable. But the Trump transition team will undoubtedly find some items that they won’t love.

But RegInfo Mobile has much more. You can find the 2016 “unified agenda of regulatory and deregulatory actions,” required by Congress from all agencies of the federal government, where you can get fairly detailed accounts of what agencies planned to do in this calendar year. Some of the items on the list are not going to make it out the door, which makes it simple to identify some of the Obama administration’s unfinished business.

Members of the incoming administration have rightly objected to the massive paperwork and reporting burden that the federal government places on the American people. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, every “information collection request,” as it is called, has to be formally approved by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

More than 800 requests are now under review, and you can find every one, together with a statement of the expected hours that Americans would have to spend filling out the forms (which range from 111 hours to over 7 million hours). The beauty of the list is that the Paperwork Reduction Act requires the government to allow the public to comment on information collection requests before they are finalized. When people object, officials take their concerns seriously -- and now everyone can easily see what’s contemplated.

Worried that regulators are speaking to members of interest groups? On RegInfo Mobile, you can find a full list of meetings, attendees and any documents that were exchanged.

It would be pretty scandalous for the Trump administration to terminate RegInfo Mobile, but the app will create some challenges for it. In the coming months, agencies are going to have to produce their own regulatory and deregulatory agendas, and everyone in the world will be able to see them on his or her phone. If the Trump administration is planning to cut back on air pollution regulations or safeguards for workers, it will have to offer unprecedented transparency about what it is doing.

Cynics will be suspicious about the timing of the release of RegInfo Mobile: Isn’t it directed at the Trump administration? Transparency for thee, but not for me?

That’s doubtful. Very quietly, the Obama administration has increased the transparency of the regulatory process. The largest steps involved big improvements in the two most important websites for federal regulation: RegInfo.gov (from which the new app draws its data) and Regulations.gov (which contains proposed rules and public comments).

Those steps build in turn on progress made during the George W. Bush administration, which opened up the regulatory process to an unprecedented degree. RegInfo Mobile is the latest development in a continuing process of increased openness.

Louis Brandeis, the great Supreme Court justice, described sunlight as “the best of disinfectants.” Transparency is important because it makes government work better for real people -- reducing the risk of corruption, promoting attention to overlooked factors, correcting serious errors in judgment.

Under Democratic or Republican administrations, RegInfo Mobile will not guarantee that smart regulations will be issued or that stupid ones will be stopped. But it’s a large step in the right direction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net