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Under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, the White House Office of Management and Budget became known as the place where promising new regulations died behind closed doors. So opaque was the OMB review process that a research and advocacy group called OMB Watch materialized in 1983 to “lift the veil of secrecy.”

Ten years later, unhappy with the lack of transparency, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12866, which sought to “restore the integrity and legitimacy of regulatory review and oversight [and] make the process more accessible and open to the public.”

Seventeen years after that, the question persists: Is the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which reviews rules proposed by federal agencies, following Clinton’s order?

No, says Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Reform. On March 17, the center sent a letter to White House Counsel Robert Bauer, complaining that OIRA is violating the order by failing to make public “before and after” documents showing what changes it had made in proposed rules.

“They’re not doing that,” Steinzor said. “They’ve never done it. And [Barack Obama] is supposed to be the ‘transparency president.’”

OIRA is a key gatekeeper in the rulemaking process for most federal agencies. As a result of OIRA’s review, many draft rules are changed before publication in the Federal Register, withdrawn before a review is completed, or returned to the agencies to be modified.

A glance at the regulatory agendas of just two agencies — the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency – gives a sense of what’s at stake. The Labor Department has signaled that it wants to move on miners’ exposure to coal dust, for example, while the EPA wants to address uncontrolled hazardous waste sites and air-quality standards for carbon monoxide.

“Before and after documents are critical,” Steinzor said. “A rulemaking is supposed to be open. Right now [a proposed rule] goes to OIRA and disappears into a big black hole. It gets mashed around and changed, and the process is completely shrouded in secrecy.”

Asked to respond to this charge, OMB spokesman Tom Gavin replied in an e-mail that OIRA “conducts its activities in full compliance with standing executive orders.”


What: “Before and after” documents showing changes to proposed agency rules

Where: White House Office of Management and Budget

Availability: In dispute

Format: N/A

Usability: N/A

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...