President Obama has ordered government agencies to review federal regulations and eliminate the ones that don't make sense. It's one more way in which the Obama White House has been reaching out lately to the business community and the political center.
The rules Obama put under review Tuesday encompass everything from environmental waste to labor conditions and food contamination. And the president made his announcement where he knew business leaders would see it — in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal.
He called the system of federal regulations "a patchwork of overlapping rules" — and said it's time to clean up the patchwork.
As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs puts it: "This is simply for the relevant agencies to go back and ensure that the regulations that are currently on their books go through a process that measures the costs and the benefits — that ensures, I think, the very common-sense idea that we must protect the health and safety of the American people without impeding our economic growth."
The Obama administration has been trying to improve its relationship with the business community, reaching out to CEOs and appointing senior White House officials with strong business ties. This regulatory move is another step in that direction.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the review is a good first step, but it doesn't go far enough.
"Congress should reclaim some of the authority it has delegated to the agencies and implement effective checks and balances on agency power," it said in a statement.
A Different Approach
The White House's actions also stake out a position for Obama in the political center. And they speak directly to the Republican Party's concerns about government overreach — just as Republicans begin to flex their muscles in the House majority.
But Gibbs said concerns about the business community or the Republican Party had nothing to do with the White House's decision.
"This is something that has been long in the works," he said.
The president's regulatory action looks forward, too. From now on, the public will have more opportunity to comment on proposed rules through the website regulations.gov.
And there are new provisions for small businesses. Obama told agencies to be lenient with small-business regulations, giving extensions on deadlines or exemptions from rules when appropriate.
"We think it's an important principle," says Todd McCracken, president and CEO of the National Small Business Association, "that the federal government recognize that small companies operate differently, and a regulatory requirement that might make sense for an Exxon needs to be thought about in a different kind of way for an Exxon service station."
Public Safety Concerns
At the White House on Tuesday morning, people who represent environmental, labor, consumer and other public interest groups met with Cass Sunstein, the White House official who led this effort. People who attended the meeting were asked not to discuss it, but several say advocates in the room were concerned.
University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, was not at the meeting, but she's concerned, too.
"Think about all the disasters that we have suffered in the last couple of years: the Deepwater Horizon spill; the collapse of the Big Branch mine; peanut paste with salmonella; Toyotas that suddenly accelerate; cadmium in children's jewelry. What you see is a massive failure of a regulatory system," she says. "A regulatory system that is dysfunctional."
Steinzor believes that the White House is pandering to big business at the expense of public safety.
"A look-back provision means that these agencies, which are drastically underfunded ... will need to stop doing essential work on food safety, greenhouse gases, imports from China, and put all their time into figuring out what regulations are on the books that business doesn't like," she says.
White House officials say that's not true. They argue that this is a classic Obama approach to a problem — setting aside partisan arguments about whether government should be bigger or smaller, and instead trying to strike a balance that will make government better.