Little-Known Government Agency Can Tackle Big Challenges

April 10, 2020

President Trump ran for office promising to run the country more like a business. But over the last three-plus years, it’s become abundantly clear that his administration’s policies reflect some of the worst aspects of the short-termism that Wall Street demands of our nation’s CEOs. They have prized cutting so-called “regulatory red-tape” to help businesses’ balance sheets over helping consumers and workers or protecting the environment.

Likewise, in the context of the current pandemic, the Trump administration ignored every flashing light and abandoned too many opportunities to prepare the nation for the fight against COVID-19—reportedly putting short-term stock market averages over the health and even lives of Americans, and creating a crisis that has disproportionately impacted Black and brown people across the nation. Meanwhile, even in negotiating a $2 trillion stimulus plan to enable working families to stay afloat through an unprecedented economic shock, the administration won an ideological carve-out for certain immigrants—a policy that undercuts social distancing and endangers broader public health.

The next administration has the opportunity—and moral necessity—to reject this phantom crisis of overregulation and instead focus its regulatory efforts on the tremendous structural challenges ahead, including post-pandemic economic development, the looming climate crisis, widening inequality, and the erosion of governing norms, just to name a few. They can do so by reimagining an important but little-known agency called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is housed within the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Since the Reagan administration, OIRA has managed the interagency review of most agencies’ regulations. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is adopting rules to implement the Clean Air Act, OIRA collects feedback from across the White House and other cabinet agencies, ensures that proposed policy is well-vetted, and has a robust cost-benefit analysis when appropriate. Admittedly, OIRA’s lengthy review process has its critics; some progressives have gone so far as to call for eliminating the office altogether in order to speed up agency rulemaking efforts.

But we think that eliminating the agency would be counterproductive. Instead, the next administration should actually bolster this agency—both its regulatory review process and the expertise of its career staff—to support vital policy reforms. With additional resources and a renewed mandate, OIRA could both identify areas of under-regulation and ensure that groups that are too often marginalized are not left behind in policy implementation, just to name two examples.

To start, we propose the creation of a new branch of OIRA (dubbed the Regulatory Planning Office) that can serve as a think tank within government to identify areas where regulations are desperately needed, serving to deploy political capital or even rulemaking resources toward that end. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began work nearly a decade ago on a new “infectious disease” standard that would require hospitals and health care providers to have plans in place to protect doctors, nurses, and other medical service workers from exposure to diseases like COVID-19, whether through isolation practices or personal protective equipment. Soon after taking office, the Trump administration moved that standard to the agency’s “long-term actions” list, signaling a slowdown or even halt to work on the protection. A more proactive OIRA would have spotted this area of under-regulation and pressed OSHA to continue its rulemaking, especially given the ongoing interagency dialogue about the need to prepare for a pandemic.

OIRA also has the opportunity to center equity and inclusion in crafting regulations and examining regulatory alternatives. Too often, Black and brown people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, Native peoples, young and old people, and people with disabilities are among the groups marginalized in our society and left out of the benefits of our policymaking. OIRA can require agencies to complement existing cost-benefit analysis with an “equity analysis” to assess the impact of proposed policies on marginalized communities, and it can create incentives for government to engage with communities impacted by regulations.

For example, the next administration should enact regulations that make the most of laws like the Clean Air Act by reinstating (or going beyond) the Obama administration’s groundbreaking environmental actions. OIRA can ensure that the EPA outlines—for the public—how these regulations will impact Black and brown communities, which studies show are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Better yet, OIRA could give priority review to rules when agencies actually consult with impacted communities in the development of such regulations. OIRA is well placed to press agencies to take these sorts of considerations seriously, especially if their timing is on the line.

To be sure, critics may worry that these proposals will slow down the regulatory process even more. We agree that it’s important that these reforms should be implemented flexibly, within the constraints of data and agency resources.

But if there’s anything we have learned from recent years, and especially recent weeks, it’s that government needs to be planning beyond narrow, short-term windows. Ultimately, our policy interventions will not be successful if they leave behind too many families. It’s vital that the next administration better deploys agencies like OIRA to find policies that work best in the longer term—for everyone.

Todd N. Tucker is the director of governance studies at the Roosevelt Institute. Rajesh D. Nayak is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and he previously served as deputy chief of staff at the US Department of Labor in the Obama administration. They are authors of a new Great Democracy Initiative and Roosevelt Institute report: “OIRA 2.0: How Regulatory Review Can Help Respond to Existential Threats.