President Barack Obama has made an overhaul of federal regulations a top priority of his administration, pushing changes to the financial system, bringing in Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein to run the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and wielding agency rule-making authority to pursue environmental goals.
But two of the president’s regulatory lawyers said today they still face political challenges.
Speaking at the annual convention of the liberal American Constitution Society, they said the administration needs to overcome public skepticism after a series of high-profile regulatory failures. Those failures include the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the West Virginia mine disaster that killed 29, and the recall of millions of Toyota vehicles.
Lois Schiffer, general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the Obama administration has already beefed up its environmental enforcement. “The green-badge cops are back on the beat,” she said.
But Schiffer, whose agency is at the center of the response to the Gulf Coast oil spill, said “we have to start making a case” that regulation can be worthwhile. “Government can do things that others can’t do, in acting collectively,” she said.
Her comments came as part of a panel discussion, “Regulation in the Age of Obama,” that also included Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray (D), and Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO’s director of policy.
A fifth member of the panel, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, is special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy. On leave from Stanford Law School, Cuéllar said the White House’s approach has been to try to reduce controversy by conducting rigorous cost-benefit analyses.
“You might hear at the end of the day that regulation is a political issue,” he said. “I would be skeptical about that approach.”
The Obama administration has also focused, Cuéllar said, on ensuring that regulations are easy for the public to comprehend — for example, banning the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes. “The more we’re able to make simple rules that are capable of being understood by the mass public — when that’s the audience — the more successful we’re going to be,” he said.