Obama, OIRA, & Our Dysfunctional Demockery

A review of OIRA meetings discloses the “dominance of industry groups over public interest groups…essentially unaffected by changes in administration” (62 percent under Obama vs. 68 percent 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 10 times more than public interest groups (73 percent vs. 7 percent), while both groups coincided in only 16 percent.


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 rulemaking 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. It comes as no mystery that 95 percent of the lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who met with OIRA represented industry, while only 2.5 percent 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 reveals a masquerade of illusion and hypo-crisy. 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 or human dignity calculated by cost.


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 can we expect from a swaggering narcissist incapable of anything remotely resembling genuine thought?


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 person 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 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 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 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.” 


Michael Bradburn-Ruster has taught at the University of California, Berkeley. His political work has been published on ZNet and cited in the Oxford Journal, African Affairs