Lieberman, Durbin: GAO Study Shows Federal Regulatory Process Still not Open to the Public

WASHINGTON – Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) today released a study that shows that the process used by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review and modify federal regulations is not well-documented or sufficiently accessible to the public. The study, which was performed by the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found that OMB’s regulatory operations are often hidden and are susceptible to pressure from special interest groups despite a ten-year-old policy designed to improve the regulatory process.

The GAO highlighted a number of key areas where the Bush administration continues to resist transparency in the regulatory review process. These include changes to regulations advocated by OMB during the “informal review” period; inadequate public disclosure of OMB’s communication with outside parties as federal policy is being finalized; and insufficient public access to documents exchanged between OMB and federal agencies during review by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

“Access to information about the regulatory review process is crucial to the public’s understanding of how and when federal regulatory policies evolve from draft regulations to final rules,” Durbin said. “According to the GAO, there are several cases where significant changes were made to a federal regulation between the time it was presented to OMB in draft form and its final implementation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) saw its rules significantly changed more than any other agency, but these unaccountable changes occurred in all of the agencies studied by the GAO. This is a participatory democracy and the federal regulatory process should be open to the public; sadly this report shows that this Administration still prefers to operate behind closed doors.”

“This GAO report tells us that OMB’s regulatory process is often the opposite of open and transparent,” said Lieberman, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member. “In fact, it appears the most important part of OMB’s review is veiled in secrecy. OMB’s aggressive role in changing EPA’s regulations is especially troubling, although not surprising, given the Administration’s bias toward polluters.”

Durbin and Lieberman noted that in its report, GAO recommends several improvements in the transparency of the review process at OIRA, including the documentation of substantive changes to federal rules made during either the informal or formal review period. GAO also recommends the Administration make more information available to the public and post it in a form that is more easily understood. Both senators urged the Bush Administration to implement the recommendations made in the GAO study.

“This report shows that nearly 30 % of the time, political operatives at OMB made last minute changes to federal rules that were previously developed by policy experts with public input. It also shows that in more than 10 % of the cases, outside special interest groups have more behind the scenes access and more influence on making federal policy than is appropriate,” said Durbin. “I would tell those who are tempted to look at this report and declare victory because the federal regulatory process has gotten better and is less secretive to hold off on popping any champagne corks right now. Today’s GAO report shows that we still have a long way to go before the system works properly. ”

The GAO report entitled “OMB’s Role in Reviews of Agencies’ Draft Rules and the Transparency of Those Reviews” (GAO-03-929) can be accessed via the link below.