Barack Obama has been just as zealous as George Bush in stripping away environmental, health and safety protection at the behest of industry, it turns out.
Some environmental organisations were beginning to suspect this, after Obama over-ruled his scientific advisors and blocked stronger ozone standards. Now, a new report [pdf] from the Centre for Progressive Reform has dug up some key data revealing that the White House in the age of Obama has been just as receptive to the pleadings of industry lobbyists as it was in the Bush era. And it goes far beyond ozone.
Under Obama, a little known corner of the White House – known as the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or Oira – has changed more than 80% of the rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
None of these were changes for the good, the report says.
"Every single study of its performance, including this one, shows that Oira serves as a one-way ratchet, eroding the protections that agency specialists have decided are necessary under detailed statutory mandates, following years — even decades — of work."
Oira was set up by Congress with the purpose of performing a last review of government regulations to see how they would work once they were put into effect. Its current chief is Cass Sunstein, a friend of Obama from his days teaching at Harvard Law School.
In practice, critics say the office operates as a one-stop wrecking machine undoing environmental, health, and worker safety protections that could cause political problems for the White House.
When lobbying Congress and the president fails to delay or weaken a regulation, industry has learned over the years that Oira can be their last best resort, the report says.
"A steady stream of industry lobbyists — appearing some 3,760 times over the ten-year period we studied — uses OIRA as a court of last resort when they fail to convince experts at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to weaken pending regulations."
The lobbyists were particularly obsessed with trying to undo environmental protections. Corporate executives and indusry lobbyists turned up at the White House about once a week over the last decade to try to delay or weaken EPA regulations, or more than 440 meetings.
The steady stream of oil and coal industry lobbyists to Oira did not end when Bush left office – arguably it turned into a flood. Environmental regulations made up only 10% of Oira business in Bush's time, but 36% of the office's business was meeting with outside lobbyists.
Under Obama, Oira has dedicated more than half of its meetings, 51%, to discussing pending environmental regulations with industry lobbyists, the report says.
And for industry the meetings paid off – about as much under Obama as under Bush. Following those meetings with outsiders, Oira changed 84% of EPA rules during the Bush era. Depending on how you calculate it, the change rate was even higher under Obama. Oira changed 81% of environmental rules after meetings with lobbyists. But the change rate rises to 85% once all Oira decisions on environmental regulations are factored in.
Oira does not make public records of those meetings.
Is there any chance that Obama is unaware of what Oira is up to? Rena Steinzor, the law professor at the University of Maryland who wrote the report, doesn't think so. She notes that Sunstein is a longtime friend of Obama, who has for years advocated against government regulations.
Obama will have to own those decisions – and the failure to live up to his election promises of 2008 to run a government that made decisions based on science and expertise, not political calculus.
"To us this is a sharp departure from what we were promised when this president was elected," Steinzor said. "From sound practice what we really want is for the experts to be making decisions at government agencies – the toxicologists, the pediatricians, the geologists. That's what modern government is supposed to be about, not having the decisions made by an office that is not accountable for what it does."
She went on: "What Obama meant to us, what a transformative presidency meant was that the lobbyists wouldn't control government any more. We would be transparent to a fault. We would run a transparency presidency and we would have very protective rules. We have arguably in this specific case not gotten any of this and it is disappointing."