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Obama's Regulatory Accomplishments

While virtually all national attention has been focused on the difficult straits of the higher-visibility items of the Obama administration's legislative agenda (and even there, according to the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann, his record has been vastly underappreciated), on the domestic matters that a president actually has some control over, the federal government's regulatory apparatus, the administration has quietly un-done many years of Republican mischief.

That's the message of an important piece by John Judis that appeared in The New Republic earlier this week.

Judis places Obama's accomplishments on the regulatory front into three main categories. First he's appointed (where Republicans in the Senate have allowed him) officials who actually believe in the missions of the agencies they work for, and are qualified for their jobs.

Given the habits of Republican administrations, that's no small thing:

Reagan chose Thorne Auchter, the vice president of a construction firm, to head OSHA. Bush appointed a mining company executive to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a trucking company executive to head the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. To lead OSHA, he named Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a longtime foe of the agency who had advised companies on how to block union organization.

Some of the Republican appointees weren’t business types, but ideologues or hacks who were utterly unqualified for their positions. Anne Gorsuch, whom Reagan nominated to head the EPA, was a rising member of the Colorado House of Representatives, where she was part of a conservative group known as the “House crazies.” Michael Brown, whom Bush appointed to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had previously been commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Obama’s approach, says Judis, couldn't be more different:

[T]he flow of expertise into the federal bureaucracy over the past year has been reminiscent of what took place at the start of the New Deal.

For instance, as a replacement for Foulke at OSHA, Obama chose David Michaels, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University. In 2008, Michaels published a book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, detailing how businesses had delayed regulations by “manufacturing uncertainty” about scientific findings.

To manage the EPA, Obama appointed a slew of highly experienced state environmental officials. (As Bill Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies explains, state officials are ideally suited for the EPA because they have firsthand experience in how regulations are enforced and how they work.) Obama’s choice to run the agency was Lisa Jackson, a chemical engineer who led the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Her deputies include the former secretary of the environment in Maryland, as well as the former heads of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Bureau of Resource Protection, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Meanwhile, Obama chose as his Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Margaret Hamburg, who achieved renown during the 1990s as health commissioner of New York City, where she developed a program for controlling tuberculosis that led to a sharp decline in the disease. Her number two is a former Baltimore health commissioner who, in 2008, was named a public official of the year by Governing magazine.

Second, says Judis, Obama has decisively reversed the Reagan-Bush 43 habit of undermining regulatory agencies by starving them of administrative funds and personnel:

Even in the face of the recession, he proposed and got funding increases for numerous regulatory agencies--some of them dramatic. He asked for $10.5 billion for the EPA for 2010--a 34 percent jump over 2009, and the first time in eight years that the budget had increased. He also requested a 19 percent increase in the FDA’s budget, the largest in its history; a 10 percent increase for OSHA, which will allow it to hire 130 new inspectors; and increases of 5 percent, 7 percent, and 9 percent for the Federal Trade Commission, the SEC, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Finally, Obama has ended the application by Republican administrations of a skewed approach to cost-benefit analysis of proposed regulations that makes short-term costs to businesses an overriding consideration. His most important step was probably appointing progressive law professor Cass Sunstein to head up the White House "super-agency" that reviews federal regulations, which under Bush became a major obstacle to the ability of regulatory agencies to do their work.

Judis warns that continued progress on this front is one of the little-appreciated stakes involved in this November's elections:

In 1993, Clinton, too, attempted to revive the regulatory agencies by appointing well-qualified personnel and increasing funding. But, after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they managed to cut Clinton’s budget proposals and delay or block the implementation of regulations. If Democrats lose Congress this November, the same thing could happen again.

That's something for progressives "de-energized" by the events of the last year, and inclined to sit on their hands this election cycle, to keep in mind.