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Bush Steps Up His Attack on the Regulatory System, Endangering Important Health and Safety Protections

When Democrats won control of the Senate and the House of Representatives in November, President Bush was backed into a corner.

For the first time since he took office in 2001, the all-powerful president, who appeared to have a blank check from lawmakers to do as he pleased, finally has had to worry that Congress would challenge his policies, launch investigations into his actions and harshly question his agency heads.

One of his latest and most disturbing power grabs is his stepped-up attack on the federal regulatory system – which establishes critical health, environmental, occupational, vehicle and other protections for citizens.

In January, the president released a new executive order that requires agencies to submit to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its review of "significant guidance documents" that agencies produce.

What is a "significant guidance document"? According to the White House, it could be almost any sort of publication that agencies produce (other than regulations, which already must be cleared by OMB) – from a government bulletin advising mine operators how to provide more breathable air for trapped miners to a biannual agency public report about what hazardous materials and exposures may cause cancer.

With the White House controlling the content of these documents, the administration could bottleneck the process of getting information to the public. At the very least, it will take much longer for the public to receive life-saving information. At worst, the public might never see the information at all.

Bush’s executive order also makes the regulatory process more political. Before he issued it, each agency was required to have a regulatory policy officer to generally oversee the process. That officer may have been either a career governmental official or a political appointee and had to report to the agency head. Now, that officer must be a political appointee separate from the agency head, and the officer no longer must report to the agency head but reports directly to the White House. As a result, the White House has much more power over the regulatory process than ever before.

This undermines the congressional authority delegated to agency heads, who are accountable to both Congress and the president, as former Public Citizen Litigation Group Director David Vladeck noted in Feb. 13 Senate testimony. "The amended [e]xecutive [o]rder strips Congress’ designation of much of its force by giving a different political appointee – accountable to the [p]resident but not necessarily to Congress – substantial control over the agency’s regulatory output," Vladeck said.

Bush Nominating Industry Extremist

Not only is Bush trying to clamp down on health and safety agencies, but he is also nominating an anti-regulatory extremist to oversee the regulatory process.

Bush continues to push Susan Dudley – who was director of regulatory studies at the industry-funded think tank Mercatus Center and is hostile to the federal regulatory process – through the nomination process to head the OMB agency in charge of regulations (the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA). The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs killed her nomination last year, but Bush re-nominated her on Jan. 9. In the meantime, she is a "senior adviser" to the acting OIRA head – meaning that she’s essentially running the show there.

As OIRA head, Dudley has the power to weaken or eliminate regulations that protect your health and your rights – from environmental protections to privacy protections. And, judging from her record and her ties to regulated industry, she will try to block most new protections.

Bush has also nominated Michael E. Baroody, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, to be chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates many of the association’s members – or at least used to do so.

Bush Poised to Undermine Congress

Even before issuing the new executive order and guidance bulletin, the White House had used every means at its disposal to put corporate interests above the public interest.

For example, when Congress responded to the Ford-Firestone deaths by requiring NHTSA to mandate tire pressure monitoring systems to alert drivers when a tire is dangerously under-inflated, OIRA forced the agency to issue a weak rule that would fail to work whenever all tires are too low. The new rule now does not apply to replacement tires. Additionally, before NHTSA issued a rule undermining fuel economy by changing how the standards apply to light trucks and SUVs, Vice President Cheney and, of course, OIRA led a series of backroom meetings and forced the agency to gut the fuel economy rule of most meaningful improvements.

Now, with the executive order, Bush has empowered the radical Dudley to undermine new congressional efforts to protect the public.

The administration is struggling to retain power now that Congress is no longer rubber-stamping the president’s policies. Congress should investigate the White House’s abuse of power and anti-consumer policies, overturn the executive order and turn down the nominations of any anti-regulation radicals.

Public Citizen will work hard to persuade Congress to take strong action to end Bush’s power grab.