Obama, OIRA, & Our Dysfunctional Demockery: A Tale of Two Faces
Forget ALEC--at least for the moment. For although ALEC represents a frightening degree of collusion between industry and government, there is a more insidious entity that erodes the system from within, gutting regulations and leaving no trace. It's called OIRA (pronounced “O-EYE-ra”). Though many well-informed people have never even heard of the agency, the familiar EPA, FDA, and OSHA are all beholden to its decisions, which are secret and thus unaccountable.
Until recently, the head of OIRA (Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) was legal scholar Cass Sunstein, a professor at the Law Schools of both Harvard and the University of Chicago; his wife is Obama's Special Assistant at the National Security Council, Samantha Power, who has famously promoted armed intervention as a solution to humanitarian conflicts, and savaged Hillary Clinton's penchant for deceit.
As Sunstein left the agency on August 3, his performance earned acclaim from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and President Obama, with the latter offering fulsome praise and gratitude: his chief regulator had shown that it was “possible to support economic growth without sacrificing health, safety and the environment... his efforts will benefit Americans for years to come.”
How did Sunstein achieve this near-miracle of compromise? According to Mr. Obama, it resulted from his “tenacious promotion of cost-benefit analysis...”
But the real fruits of the approach that Obama so admires were in evidence last November, when the Center for Progressive Reform issued a devastating report on OIRA's mission to ensure that “the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.” The 90-page study is thorough, candid, and devastating.
Contrary to Obama's rosy claim, it reveals that from the start, his administration was “determined to use OIRA as the leading edge of its political efforts to placate big business in an effort to neutralize its attacks on the Administration...”
At the heart of the CPR investigation is OIRA's routine evasion of Executive Order 12,866 (signed by President Clinton in 1993), which was designed to increase transparency in the oversight of laws intended to protect and promote public health, worker safety, and the environment.
Some highlights from the report:
- In the 18 years since the Executive Order, OIRA has consistently eviscerated regulations carefully crafted after years of research, and proposed by “experts in law, science, engineering, economics, and other disciplines.”
- A full 84% of EPA regulations have been eroded, as well as 65% of regulatory proposals from the FDA and OSHA.
- OIRA engages in “a highly biased process that is far more accessible to regulated industries than to public interest groups... a process that demeans all disciplines except economists practicing OIRA's narrow brand of cost-benefit analysis,” allowing “political considerations to trump expert judgments...”
- A review of OIRA meetings discloses the “dominance of industry groups over public interest groups... essentially unaffected by changes in administration” (62% under Obama, vs. 68% under Bush).
- The Obama Administration fares, in some respects, even worse than that of President Bush: “OIRA changed 76 percent of rules submitted to it for review under President Obama, compared to a 64 percent change rate under President Bush.”
- In OIRA's review and comment process, industry participated ten times more than public interest groups (73% vs. 7%), while both groups coincided in only 16%.
- With regard to EPA rules regarding hazardous air pollutants, “industry groups communicated informally with the agency--through meetings, phone calls, and letters--170 times more than public interest groups did…”
- In sum, “Avenues of public input that are ostensibly neutral, permitting anyone to contribute to the rule making process, have fallen largely into the hands of the regulated industries themselves.”
OIRA's vaunted “open-door” policy amounts to this: access is proportionate to the depth of the pockets involved. Exxon's profits in 2011 were $41 billion; the previous year, Sierra Club revenues were less than $52 million, while its expenses resulted in a $1 million deficit. It comes as no mystery that 95% of the lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who met with OIRA represented industry, while only 2.5% represented public interest groups.
The consequent erosion of crucial statutes degrades our water and air standards, food and drug safety, and workers' health and safety.
The report thus unmasks a pernicious fantasy shared by both political parties: while Republicans fatuously demonize the EPA, Democrats pretend it actually works. The underlying message is loud and clear: forget the scientific experts, forget transparency and public debate. OIRA's criterion is that such concerns--the pillars of enlightened, compassionate public policy--are entirely subordinate to cost.
CPR's investigation peels back Obama's rhetoric of hope and change to reveal a masquerade of illusion and hypocrisy. Witness a President who presents himself as a sort of practical idealist--and is pilloried by the Right as if he really were-- not only conceding but championing the mantra of the market.
Costs and benefits are measured in dollars, and whatever eludes monetization is simply omitted from the equation. Given its “deep ethical and logical contradictions,” problematic methodology, and bias toward “partisan abuse,” cost-benefit analysis is a “failure,” an exercise in “pricing the priceless,” to use Frank Ackerman's apt phrase. The common good cannot be served by a formula, nor human dignity calculated by cost.
Imagine your child has cancer--you'd love to help, but is it really worth it? The safety of miners or workers on oil rigs is important, naturally--it's simply too expensive! Animals and rivers are lovely--just don't let them impede the quest for profits.
The approach Obama finds so praiseworthy is notoriously antithetical to deeper, genuine human values--those very elements systematically neglected in favor of the neoliberal fantasy whose “fundamental assumptions are patently absurd,” as Simon Clarke has argued.
While Romney and his minions promote the lie that agencies like the EPA undermine prosperity, the man has a valid excuse: what else expect from a swaggering narcissist incapable of anything remotely resembling genuine thought, a high priest of Mammon whose true object of devotion trumps any Mormon aspirations?
Obama's good intentions and appealing rhetoric (simplistic and banal though it be) conceal a more insidious reality. In the gulf between Obama's image and his actions, we find not simply a lack of vision and courage. We discover a fusion of Oscar Wilde's famous quip--that a cynic is a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing--with the analysis of our age's central woe, offered by the brilliant Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef: our leaders know nearly everything, but understand almost nothing. As a result, society and the environment have become a subset of the economy. More than mere inversion of values, it amounts to a perversion of reality.
That Barack Obama should admire Sunstein's “tenacious promotion” of a specious criterion as an ideal model is at once a grand delusion and a tragic revelation: an erasure of both value and understanding.
No slogans will avail to compensate for this pervasive lack of wisdom, for the cynicism and hypocrisy that preclude its advent. Obama has failed to address the most egregious systemic crises of our time: the reform of Wall Street's tyranny of inequality, the need for humane and viable health care, the enfeeblement of labor, our crumbling infrastructure, suicidal militarism, and above all our unsustainable violation of nature. Given Obama's guile regarding Sunstein's OIRA, a successful outcome of the President's efforts to win re-election will continue to cost Americans “for years to come.”