President Obama made a big splash with his recent Wall Street Journal column, "Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System." He wrote that he had issued an executive order to review federal rules with the goal of eliminating those that stifle job creation and economic growth.
To paraphrase the Bard (and leaving the "idiot" part out), the column was full of sound and fury and signified nothing. This was just another feint to the center and one more step on the reelection road to refashion the image of Barack Obama.
Behold Obama 2.0 and his first big lie.
Barack Obama's poll numbers are listless; the shellacking his fellow Democrats took was a wake-up call to him regarding his own fate in 2012. A new Associated Press poll finds that more than half of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy. These views are also reflected in a New York Times/CBS poll that finds that majorities disapprove of him on the economy and on job creation. Disapproving majorities do not lead to reelection. Barack Obama's reign has seen one job-killing measure after another, culminating in the greatest job-killer of them all: Obamacare. David Harsanyi was on point when he wrote in his column "Obama Isn't Fooling Anyone" that "I can't recall a single federal program, piece of legislation or proposal in the past two years that was initiated to ease the burden on business or consumers." Obama's rhetoric has chilled business activity. He has let regulators run amok, whittling away our liberty. For a man whom environmentalists worship like a modern-day Pan, he has sure cut down a large number of trees to make the pages that fill the rapidly expanding Federal Register, the Bible of Bureaucrats that is a compendium of all federal regulations. In Obama's first two years in office, he showed nary a concern regarding the number of new regulations. He set records for both the number of major regulations issued (43) and their added annual net burden on the economy (at least $26.5 billion). At his current pace, should Obama serve eight years, he will add $212 billion in burdens to job-creating businesses. But as pointed out in the Washington Examiner, the pace will be accelerated when Obamacare and the new Financial Regulation bills kick in this year. And who knows what mischief will come when the Consumer Protection Agency is formed under the leadership of Elizabeth Warren?
But with his image suffering and his reelection chances up in the air, Obama was forced to respond the way he normally does: with a bunch of hooey and public relations chaff released into the airwaves.
Are we ready to believe that Obama's extreme makeover will lead to fewer regulations and more jobs? Or is it just one more promise made to burnish his image -- a promise that will be broken? The latter seems more likely, and there is a slew of reasons to believe that it was just another promise with lots of loopholes.
Indeed, Obama's grand executive order merely duplicates a Clinton-era order that has been on the books all along! Business should not be breaking out the bubbly.
Obama has a history of previous pivots to the center that have merely been campaign props to help his poll numbers.
The federal pay freeze was smoke and mirrors -- the formulas used to pay federal workers are as complicated as any bureaucrat can make them, but they allow for more pay hikes, regardless of the "freeze." The lifting of the moratorium on Gulf drilling, announced with much fanfare as the midterm elections approached, has been met with the most powerful force known to man: bureaucratic inertia. Federal salaries are not being frozen, but drilling permits have been. Obama has a history of failing to follow through after making these political pronouncements. In 2009, he demanded that every federal department cut its budget for a total of $100 million dollars and put a deadline of ninety days on his "order." However, it seems like no one got the memo -- or if they did, it went straight to the recycling bin -- since the deadline passed and the money was not cut. But it did make for some good press, and very few who checked followed up -- least of all the president -- to see if his order was obeyed. Where in the world is Cass Sunstein? Remember him? Barack Obama anointed Sunstein his regulation czar (officially, the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs). As a professor and writer, Sunstein had championed the idea of submitting regulations to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Has there been much of that going on during the explosive growth in regulations over the past two years? Or was it just elite featherbedding (Sunstein is married to Obama's good friend, Samantha Power, who moved to Washington to serve on the National Security Council)? As part of the public relations spin to improve Obama's image as the regulator-in-chief, we can expect to see and hear much more from the AWOL Sunstein in the weeks ahead. The roll-out has already begun with a "rare interview" with Bloomberg News.
Here is a prediction: history will repeat itself, skipping the tragedy phase and going directly to farce.
How Obama will betray his promise to cut regulations
Obama and his team have plenty of tools to wiggle out of any serious commitment to slash regulations. They will use them.
As the Washington Post points out in an editorial, Obama's executive order has limited reach, and his own words display his halfhearted approach to his own promise: In fact, much of the regulatory state consists of independent agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Reserve, that fall outside the scope of Mr. Obama's executive order. So there is that inherent limit to any potential regulatory rollback. Also, it will take months for the rest of the bureaucracy to produce recommendations for regulatory pruning. We see nothing in his executive order that would skew the analysis against regulation; indeed, it clearly says that the cost-benefit analysis must take account of intangible factors as "equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts." All the president has done is to promise business another look at the balance government has struck between public risk and private enterprise under current rules.
Bureaucrats may have read Obama's columns, but what they took away was only this part: cost-benefit analysis must take into account intangible factors as "equity, human dignity, fairness and distributive impacts." These are the type of Hallmark Card sentiments that Barack Obama habitually uses ("empathy" seems to be retired for now), and they will allow wily bureaucrats to leave their Xacto knives sheathed.
Why should federal employees cut regulations that ensure their own jobs? They can always find regulations that serve "equity, human dignity...blah...blah...blah." Their first priority is the dignity of keeping their own jobs. Slashing the number and scope of regulations would be slashing their own job security.
Besides, regulators form a permanent ruling class. Politicians come and go, but regulators stay. Paul Rubin, who served under Reagan, wrote of the problems with deregulatory initiatives:
The permanent staffs of the agencies were always interested in more regulation, either because of self-selection or because promotions and power increase in a larger agency. It also helped that we deregulators (generally economists) were not usually interested in permanent government positions, because reducing the power of the agency is a sure way to make enemies.
Although my mandate was to cut back, I spent more time fighting new proposals than getting rid of old ones. The staffs wanted more, not less. Whenever I met acquaintances from other agencies the invariable comment was "You won't believe what they want to do now." ("They" were the permanent staffs.)
The current regulatory agencies are not going to hire or promote people like me. Without managers with a strong interest in deregulation and with the backing of senior administrators, there will be no serious power to buck the staffs.
Will these putative efforts really have the backing of the senior administrators, including the regulator-in-chief? Rubin concludes that deregulation will probably be "impossible under Mr. Obama."
As if on cue, the New York Times just published a column pointing out that there are very few regulations whose elimination won't impact one group or another. Therefore, one group or another will feel its elimination "unfair." How likely will the scales be tilted against Big Bad Business and in favor of the status quo?
Of course, the Times also led readers to believe that all regulations are worthwhile -- a belief that those who work in the Obama administration are undoubtedly inclined to hold as well.
Will cabinet members and czars whom Obama hand-picked because they shared his left-wing ideology push their people to seriously review regulations? These officials pledge their allegiance to a regulatory state; very few cabinet members have any real-world business experience. Are they likely to find any regulations that give them power over business burdensome? "Personnel is policy," goes the Washingtonian axiom.
Indeed, the Times celebrated the coming regulatory regime when it published an article just last year titled "With Obama, Regulations are Back in Fashion." They still are in fashion. More than 4,200 proposed rules are in the pipeline at federal agencies.
Perhaps this was the reason Barack Obama chose one former regulation as exemplifying the type of regulations he was targeting (pardon the violent term): the listing of saccharin as a form of toxic waste. This was an absurd regulation since saccharin has been legal to consume for many years, here and abroad. Will that be the extent of his heralded push-back against regulations?
This may be only slightly far-fetched. Although the administration has made some token regulatory changes the last week regarding worker noise and medical devices, the Big Kahunas may be off limits. Look no farther than the Environmental Protection Agency.
Industry groups have been criticizing Obama's Environmental Protection Agency for many actions that have suppressed growth, including growth in the number of jobs. Most recently, for the first time ever, the EPA pulled a permit for a new mine -- after the company developing the mine had already spent 200 million dollars on it. This just followed one action after another by the EPA that has discouraged businesses from expanding their operations; they fear running afoul of the latest EPA pronouncements on carbon dioxide or any other element that the EPA wants to regulate to death. Even some Democrats (mostly from coal mining states) have had the temerity to oppose the EPA.
There has never been any love lost between the EPA and American business, but the level of rancor the last two years has been at record levels. If Obama truly wanted to extend an olive branch to American business and convincingly demonstrate that he means business about the overuse of regulations, he would take a stand against the EPA and perhaps even throw its head, Lisa Jackson, under the bus as he has thrown others who might damage his election prospects. Instead, he has all but declared the EPA a fire-free zone safe from review. He defended his administration's environmental regulations in his WSJ column:
Despite a lot of heated rhetoric, our efforts over the past two years to modernize our regulations have led to smarter - and in some cases tougher - rules to protect our health, safety and environment. Yet according to current estimates of their economic impact, the benefits of these regulations exceed their costs by billions of dollars.
The EPA issued its own self-congratulatory note when it declared itself "confident" that Obama's new regulatory policy won't affect new climate rules and stated that it will not have to reexamine later, current, or pending environmental regulations as part of the new review framework of President Obama's. So the EPA is off-limits to review, and that is the one agency that has probably done the most harm to our economy -- despite Obama's words to the contrary.
Will Obama really restrict the rule making behind his own handiwork: Obamacare, Financial Regulation, and the Consumer Protection Agency? Those are his babies. (It is far more likely that we will see low hanging fruit picked off. How likely is it that these foolish regulations will be blamed on previous presidents?)
Calling Obama's bluff
Obama did not preempt Republican efforts to stop his agenda and expose his strategy to ram through a left-wing program through rules and regulations. The GOP has a Game Plan to challenge these efforts. Obama is trying to steal their message and their thunder. But there are far fewer real changes in store than just more smoke and mirrors. There is less true triangulation and just a lot more diversion. Obama is a poker player. Republicans should call his bluff.
Once the GOP won back the House, committee chairs flipped to the Republicans. They now control the agenda of those committees and have begun using those positions of power to constrain Obama's agenda. They have been front and center challenging job-killing regulations. Obama himself did what politicians do: jumped in front of the parade to seize the spotlight (and we know how he loves it).
Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been at the forefront in scrutinizing regulations. Issa seems to be running circles around Barack Obama. He asked business for suggestions regarding regulations that were stifling job growth.
Then came Obama's Wall Street Journal column. This was followed by the formation of a new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, headed by General Electric's CEO Jeffrey Immelt to gain (Wall) street credibility and divert some of the donations that have been flowing to Republicans. Will this ploy work?
Immelt has been characterized by the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes as Obama's Pet CEO. General Electric is heavily dependent on government contracts, and its clean energy division has been showered with taxpayer money courtesy of the Democrats. Theirs is a symbiotic (a fancy word for one hand washes the other) relationship. Immelt is the King of Crony Capitalism, but for many people less versed in the ways of Washington, the image of American businessmen joining Obama's efforts will help make Obama 2.0 more believable. Issa then trumped Obama -- he took his message to the people. He issued a video asking the public (not just business) to send him examples of regulations that are holding them back. "Where does Washington help and where does it hurt?" he said in the video. He unveiled a website -- americanjobcreators.com -- that solicits feedback from the public. Issa's challenges have prompted personal attacks -- but he is not flinching.
What more can Republicans do?
Republicans have in their files a passel of devastating regulations that should be changed if not eliminated. He could, but won't, make a fresh start by freezing any all new regulatory activity mandated by Obamacare until congressional debate and court action have decided its future. There are plenty of rules and regulations flowing from the Dodd-Frank bill that will stifle job growth. Will Obama turn the handle on that faucet? He could but won't. These aims should be publicized and the administration challenged to justify them. Business groups have responded and are flooding the White House with requests to scrutinize their least favorite regulations. The Republican Party should publicize these regulations -- call it the Ridiculous Regulation of the Day or give it some handy moniker. House Committee chairmen should call in department heads and query them. Have these regulations been scrutinized for their costs and their benefits? Progress reports should be posted and publicized. Liberals love the word "progress" after all.
The power of the purse should be considered if these reviews show no progress. The budgets of these departments should be scrubbed. If these steps are not enough, the Congressional Review Act should be used to kill job-destroying regulations whose burdens exceed their benefits.
But there is one more vital step that Republicans must take to take back power from the permanent governing class in Washington (politicians come and go, but regulators stay right where they are -- forever). Republicans should draft legislation much more carefully so less discretion is left to busybody bureaucrats, for idle hands are the devil's workshop. Obamacare is a prime example of legislation that delegates far too much power to bureaucrats to make decisions that legislators have been too lazy, too reluctant, or too irresponsible to make on their own. We should not be too lazy, too reluctant, or too irresponsible to hold our politicians accountable.
For when all is said and done, it is also our battle to win or to lose.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.