WASHINGTON -- White House regulatory czar Cass Sunstein is stepping down after failing to advance federal health and safety rules nearly as much as Obama supporters had hoped, while also failing in his attempt to win over powerful corporate interests by offering to roll back regulations they disliked.
(See this extensive Huffington Post profile of Sunstein from June 2011).
Sunstein's departure was announced in a statement from President Barack Obama Friday morning, in which the president thanked his former University of Chicago Law School colleague "for his friendship and for his years of exceptional service." Obama credited Sunstein with showing "that it is possible to support economic growth without sacrificing health, safety and the environment."
Sunstein, who headed the White House's little-known but hugely powerful Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, also got a warm send-off from his immediate boss. White House Office of Management and Budget director Jeffrey Zients credited him with helping design "numerous rules that are, among other things, saving lives on the highways by making vehicles safer and reducing distracted driving; dramatically increasing the fuel economy of the nation’s cars and trucks; protecting public health by reducing air pollution; making our food supply safer; and protecting against discrimination on the basis of disability and sexual orientation."
But that is a modest record in the context of the wholesale deregulation during the Bush/Cheney era and the unprecedented regulatory failures of the recent past: financial crisis; the BP oil spill; the Upper Big Branch mine explosion; a bevy of food- and toy-related health scares and the imminent dangers of climate change.
Critics said he did more damage than good. "That's small progress in comparison to the rules he killed," said Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the pro-regulation Center for Progressive Reform.
Steinzor credits Sunstein for killing or stalling critically important regulations proposed by Obama's cabinet agencies, including those intended to improve air quality, limit exposure to silica, and protect minors from dangerous agricultural work.
Steinzor also criticized some of the rules Sunstein ushered in, such as one that allows many poultry plants to speed up processing lines by eliminating federal inspectors.
"The track record is very bad," Steinzor said. "There will be disasters in the second term -- if there is one."
Sunstein was a favorite rhetorical foil for some conservatives on account of his academic writings urging the government to nudge -- rather than force -- people into making better decisions. Glenn Beck called him a latter-day Goebbels ready to "control your every move." And yet Sunstein's signature campaign involved rolling back regulations, not expanding them.
Soon after the 2010 election, Sunstein launched what he called a "regulatory look-back," campaign during which government rule makers reconsidered agencies' existing rules to make sure they weren't too onerous for business.
Sunstein became a regular fixture on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, proselytizing on behalf of the campaign, which he and the White House said "produced over $10 billion in five-year savings."
But it was not enough for the corporate right, which consistently rebuffed him. And it utterly infuriated progressives by adopting the right-wing narrative that regulations are fundamentally suspect.
"Sunstein left behind a muddled regulatory approach that appeared to buy into a phony, largely Republican agenda that regulations were job killers but not life savers," said Jeffrey Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower group.
As for savings, Sunstein -- and Obama -- often included in their calculations items like rolling back a rule that theoretically could have treated milk spills like oil spills. But even Obama's own Environmental Protection Agency administrator called that interpretation a myth. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration initiative updating "hazard classifications and labels," which the White House said "is expected to result in an annualized $585 million in estimated savings for employers" was actually proposed in 2006 by the Bush administration.
Consumer groups are saying Sunstein's decision to return to Harvard Law School gives Obama a chance to reboot his regulatory agenda.
"With Cass Sunstein's departure, the Administration should take this opportunity to shift gears from their focus on 'lookback' reviews to more aggressively pursuing a forward looking agenda of modernizing regulatory standards that are unacceptably out of date in areas such as food, consumer product, and workplace safety, just to name a few," Public Citizen regulatory advocate Amit Narang said in a statement.
But some critics expect little change. "While Sunstein’s office served as the health and safety sphincter for the federal government, he was not running his own agenda," said Ruch. "He was merely taking direction from a finger-in-the-wind White House."