Obama’s regulatory czar and (sort of) transparency

A funny thing happened this week when President Obama’s regulatory czar, Howard Shelanski, was called to testify before Congress. The subject of the hearing: transparency at Shelanski’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). On the eve of the hearing, OIRA tried to fool us by pretending to be transparent.

For the last several months, I’ve been routinely checking OIRA’s website for notations about meetings the staff has held with individuals or organizations which have an interest in particular pending OSHA regulations. I knew meetings with particular groups had taken place, but OIRA had not disclosed the meeting on its website.

How’d I know about these meetings? First, I participated in two of them. One took place in December 2015 and the other in February 2016. No record of these meetings appeared on the OIRA website.  Second, a reliable source confirmed that both the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) had met with OIRA in early November 2015. My source told me the trade associations met with OIRA to discuss a new OSHA regulation to improve employer reporting of work-related injuries and illnesses. That is the same draft regulation about which colleagues and I met with OIRA in December 2015.

At least once per week since December I’ve been checking the OIRA site to look for the disclosure of these meetings. I even telephoned OIRA once and sent emails twice to ask why the meetings were not listed on the office’s website. No one responded to my inquiries. I also contacted the General Services Administration (GSA) which hosts the OIRA website. I spoke to a very nice member of the staff to ask if GSA had a backlog which would explain the missing information from the OIRA website. “No,” I was told, “GSA operate the website, but OIRA is responsible for posting its own content.” [paraphrased]

My weekly check of the OIRA website continued. The last time I called up the site was Friday, March 11, 2016. Still, none of these meetings were disclosed nor any others that might have taken place.

At Tuesday’s hearing before the Subcommittee on Government Operations of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Obama’s regulatory czar said this about transparency:

"Pursuant to EO 12866, OIRA meets with any party interested in providing input on a regulation under review. The entities with which OIRA typically meets include state and local governments, businesses, trade associations, unions, and advocates from environmental, health, and safety organizations. OIRA posts a searchable log of all such meetings on its website. That log now includes both meetings that have already taken place and also upcoming meetings." [0:15:50]

Hearing his testimony, I toggled to a new tab on my browser. I called up RegInfo.gov and used the search for "EO 12866 Meetings."

Well, well, what do you know. OIRA’s November 2015 meetings with the US Chamber of Commerce and NAM are now posted (here, here.) Several other meetings are listed, including the one I participated in December 17, 2015 (here), as well as a meeting with the American Insurance Association on November 9 (here), with the AFL-CIO on December 21 (here), with ORCHSE Strategies on January 11 (here) and with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association on February 2 (here.)

A win for transparency? Sort of.

I also participated in a meeting with OIRA on February 23. Colleagues and I held the meeting to urge OIRA's prompt review of OSHA’s final rule on silica. That meeting is not posted on the OIRA website. How many other meetings with stakeholders has OIRA failed to disclose?

Shelanski was in the hot seat during the hearing on Tuesday. Much of it focused on his failure to respond to a subpoena from the committee. None of the lawmakers asked about my pet peeve: OIRA's failure to disclose these meetings. It baffles me that something so simple is such a challenge for Mr. Shelanski's office.

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