From: The New York Times - December 5, 2011
The Wonky Liberal
By DAVID BROOKS
Republicans have many strong arguments to make against the Obama administration, but one major criticism doesn’t square with the evidence. This is the charge that President Obama is running a virulently antibusiness administration that spews out a steady flow of job- and economy-crushing regulations.
In the first place, President Obama has certainly not shut corporate-types out of the regulatory process. According to data collected by the Center for Progressive Reforms, 62 percent of the people who met with the White House office in charge of reviewing regulations were representatives of industry, while only 16 percent represented activist groups. At these meetings, business representatives outnumbered activists by more than 4 to 1.
Nor is it true that the administration is blindly doing the bidding of the liberal activist groups. On the contrary, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and its administrator, Cass Sunstein, have been the subject of withering attacks from the left. The organization Think Progress says the office is “appalling.” Mother Jones magazine is on the warpath. The Huffington Post published a long article studded with negative comments from unions and environmental activists.
If you step back and try to get some nonhysterical perspective, you come to the following conclusion: This is a Democratic administration. Many of the major agency jobs are held by people who come out of the activist community who are not sensitive to the costs they are imposing on the economy. President Obama has a political and philosophical incentive to restrain their enthusiasm. He has, therefore, supported a strong review agency in the White House that does rigorous cost-benefit analyses to review proposed regulations and minimize their economic harm.
This office, under Sunstein, is incredibly wonky. It is composed of career number-crunchers of no known ideological bent who try to measure the trade-offs inherent in regulatory action. Deciding among these trade-offs involves relying on both values and data. This office has tried to elevate the role of data so that every close call is not just a matter of pleasing the right ideological army.
Over all, the Obama administration has significantly increased the regulatory costs imposed on the economy. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind.
During the final year of their administrations, presidents generally issue tons of new rules. Nineteen-eighty-eight, under Ronald Reagan, 1992, under George H.W. Bush and 2008, under George W. Bush, were monster years for new regulations. In his first years, Obama has not increased regulatory costs more than Reagan and the Bushes did in their final years.
Data collected by Bloomberg News suggest that the Obama White House has actually reviewed 5 percent fewer rules than George W. Bush’s did at a similar point in his presidency. What has increased is the cost of those rules.
George W. Bush issued regulations over eight years that cost about $60 billion. During its first two years, the Obama regulations cost between $8 billion and $16.5 billion, according to estimates by the administration itself, and $40 billion, according to data collected, more broadly, by the Heritage Foundation.
That’s a significant step up, as you’d expect when comparing Republican to Democratic administrations, but it is not a socialist onslaught.
Nor is it clear that these additional regulations have had a huge effect on the economy. Over the past 40 years, small business leaders have eloquently complained about the regulatory burden. And they are right to. But it’s not clear that regulations are a major contributor to the current period of slow growth.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics asks companies why they have laid off workers. Only 13 percent said regulations were a major factor. That number has not increased in the past few years. According to the bureau, roughly 0.18 percent of the mass layoffs in the first half of 2011 were attributable to regulations.
Some of the industries that are the subject of the new rules, like energy and health care, have actually been doing the most hiring. If new regulations were eating into business, we’d see a slip in corporate profits. We are not.
There are two large lessons here. First, Republican candidates can say they will deregulate and, in some areas, that would be a good thing. But it will not produce a short-term economic rebound because regulations are not a big factor in our short-term problems.
Second, it is easy to be cynical about politics and to say that Washington is a polarized cesspool. And it’s true that the interest groups and the fund-raisers make every disagreement seem like a life-or-death struggle. But, in reality, most people in government are trying to find a balance between difficult trade-offs. Whether it’s antiterrorism policy or regulatory policy, most substantive disagreements are within the 40 yard lines.
Obama’s regulations may be more intrusive than some of us would like. They are not tanking the economy.