It is mid-September, and the Trump administration still has no website for its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. That is astonishing. It is also a disservice to the American people.
Ever since 1981, OIRA has been the nation’s clearinghouse for federal regulations. Whenever the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor or the Department of Health and Human Services wants to impose significant regulatory burdens, it has to get the office’s approval. (Disclosure: I was administrator of OIRA from 2009 to 2012.)
In addition, OIRA oversees deregulation. It has to be on board if an agency wants to eliminate expensive requirements or to give real relief to small business.
The office is also in charge of the Paperwork Reduction Act, which means that whenever a federal agency asks Americans to fill out forms, OIRA must give its assent. It plays a major role in protecting online privacy, in overseeing the collection of statistics, and in promoting international regulatory cooperation -- as, for example, by reducing trade barriers between the U.S. and Europe, Canada, and Mexico. It’s a little office, with about 45 employees, but it’s the cockpit of the American regulatory state.
Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, OIRA has carefully maintained a website (as have other parts of the executive office of the president). For decades, the basic principle has been one of openness.
Though OIRA now has no website, the Obama administration’s has been archived, and if you look on the Trump administration’s site, that’s where it will send you. On the archived site, you can find a capsule description of the office's role. You can find executive orders from previous presidents. You can get valuable reports to Congress, required by law, which are filled with information about the costs and benefits of regulation, and also about paperwork burdens imposed on the American people.
You can learn about agreements with other nations. You can find out if OIRA was doing what the law required it to do.
But if you want to find a catalog of the office’s activities under Trump, you won’t have anywhere to go.
There is a qualification, which is that the Trump administration continues to provide information to a valuable website, reginfo.gov, which allows people to see what regulations are now under review at OIRA, and which offers important information about which rules, and how many, have been approved by the office in the recent (and distant) past.
That’s great, but it is no substitute for OIRA’s own website, which has included fact-filled reports to Congress, offered a sense of both new and enduring policy initiatives, given people clarity on the office’s own priorities, and enabled them to see where the current administration has broken from (or maintained continuity with) its predecessors.
In 2014, for example, the Obama administration issued an extensive plan for regulatory cooperation with Canada (strongly supported by the business community in both nations). What is the status of that plan? Are efforts at international regulatory cooperation continuing with our closest trading partners? What form are they taking?
Final reports on the costs and benefits of regulations for the preceding year are often issued over the spring or summer. Where is the 2016 report?
Annual reports on paperwork burdens, required by law, are sometimes posted in September. Is this year’s coming, and if so, when?
The Trump administration has done some promising things in the regulatory domain. As recently as this August, the president issued an impressive executive order designed to accelerate the permitting process. And as early as February, he issued an executive order with a strong plan for eliminating unjustified regulations.
But transparency is valuable, not least because it can help ensure that promising presidential plans are turned into reality. From the perspective of the White House itself, that’s good, because transparency can hold agencies’ feet to the fire.
For example, the executive action in February ordered regulatory reform task forces to provide reports to agency heads by last May. Did they comply with that obligation? It’s important to know the answer, not least because Trump directed each agency to “measure its progress” in achieving regulatory reform -- under a section called “Accountability.”
That’s a good word. Government websites are hardly a guarantee of sound decisions, and regulatory reform can occur without such websites. But in the modern era, it is important for major government offices to allow the public to have a clear sense of what they are doing, and what their priorities are.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described sunlight as “the best of disinfectants.” Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the federal government’s most significant regulatory office has provided that. At a minimum, it owes sunlight to the American people.