Center for Progressive Reform

Grading Obama's Regulators

Administration’s first year on regulatory beat had highs and lows.

On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama inherited a regulatory structure that was barely functioning in key respects. Regulations took years, even decades, to promulgate; enforcement was slow and sporadic; and the entire system was shot through with politics, courtesy of the Bush Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The effort to change that demanded many things – energizing the agencies, giving them license to do their jobs, finding additional resources, and getting OIRA out of the agencies’ way.

At the end of President Obama’s first year in office, CPR Member Scholars Rena Steinzor and Amy Sinden, together with Executive Director Shana Jones and Policy Analyst James Goodwin, took stock and issued grades, measuring the President’s first year on the regulatory beat by the yardstick of his own stated intention to empower agencies to protect Americans and the environment. The resulting report, Obama’s Regulators: A First-Year Report Card, included grades for each of the five “protector agencies,” as well as for the White House’s role on regulatory matters. The overall grade for Obama’s regulators: a B-.

“The Obama Administration has made breakthroughs in a number of key areas, particularly at EPA, NHTSA, and FDA,” Steinzor said in releasing the report.  “But it’s not good enough simply to outpace the miserable record of the Bush Administration. The appropriate standard is whether the Obama Administration is living up to the President’s campaign commitment to use the regulatory system to protect Americans from harm. And by that standard, the Administration still has a long road ahead of it. The President has begun the journey, but needs to quicken his step.”

The 42-page report looks at each agency’s high and low points in the Administration’s first year.

CPSC: Despite facing many challenges, CPSC appears committed to improving its enforcement record, and has taken important new steps to protect consumers from dangerous products. The agency did not respond well to the toxic drywall crisis and struggled in implementing a toy testing program. Final Grade: C.

EPA: With leadership committed to the agency’s regulatory mission and increased resources, EPA tackled several important environmental issues this past year, including making progress on climate change regulations, ground level ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead air pollution monitoring, and Chesapeake Bay cleanup. EPA failed, however, to take regulatory action against perchlorate, atrazine, and mercury air pollution, and it has done nothing to improve its overall inspection and enforcement record. Final Grade: B.

FDA: With leadership committed to the agency’s regulatory mission and increased resources, FDA significantly improved its overall inspection and enforcement record, and began addressing long-ignored food- and drug-safety issues. FDA has been too slow to address the threat to children’s health posed by bisphenol A (BPA), and much more must be done to protect the U.S. food supply. Final Grade: B.

NHTSA: Despite many challenges, NHTSA made some progress on improving overall traffic safety and automobile fuel efficiency. Significantly though, much of this progress involved finalizing some pending rules from the Bush Administration, rather than from any new protective initiatives launched by the agency this past year. Also, NHTSA’s proposed corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards were not strong enough. Final Grade: B-.

OSHA: Thanks to an improved budget, OSHA strengthened its inspection and enforcement record. The agency made important progress on developing a hazard communication (HazCom) rule and a diacetyl standard, but yet has to take action on literally hundreds of well-known workplace hazards. Final Grade: C.

The White House/OIRA: Overall, the White House’s participation in the regulatory process has undermined the agencies’ recovery, with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs largely operating as a barrier to effective regulations. Although President Obama’s budget requests were an improvement over the Bush Administration’s, the budget requests, most notably for CPSC and NHTSA, were not large enough to reverse agencies’ chronic underfunded state. Final Grade: C-.


The report also grades the Administration’s work on several cross-cutting regulatory matters, including Toxics (Final Grade: C), Children’s Health and Safety (Final Grade: C), Clean Water (Final Grade: C), Clean Air (Final Grade: B), Climate Change (Final Grade: A), Transparency in the Regulatory System (Final Grade: C), Scientific Integrity (Final Grade: C), Budget Requests for the Protector Agencies (Final Grade: B).



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