Monday, January 29, 2007

Working for the Clampdown

Happy Milton Friedman Day! It feels a bit early for this kind of tribute, the man having left us only two months ago. Life is so unfair: Nine years gone since the death of a different Republican hero, yet not one Sonny Bono Day have we celebrated.

Still, we must honor this occasion. So let’s mull over a little-noticed recent milestone in the annals of deregulation, a cause close to Mr. Friedman’s heart.

While drafting his State of the Union address, the President took his pencil and made some changes to an executive order entitled "Regulatory Planning and Review" (Executive Order number 12866, for you lottery buffs). First adopted in 1993 as part of the Clinton-Gore “Reinventing Government” bash, this order is believed to be the sole extant document from the Clinton era that Dick Cheney has not made into a spitball.

Even before Mr. Bush got hold of it, 12866 was a nice exercise in bureaucratic poetic justice, requiring agency officials to follow a bunch of vaguely worded and irritating procedures before making new regulations. For example, they’re supposed to prepare annual “regulatory plans” and submit lots of paperwork to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (an arm of the not-very-nice-these-days OMB), explaining how each regulation they propose is, like, totally awesome, absolutely necessary, and brimming with exciting benefits that way exceed any costs.

Under the original order, each agency also had to appoint an internal Regulatory Policy Officer (RPO). Here's where Mr. Bush just got creative: Agency heads used to be able to pick anyone they wanted for this thankless-sounding job, but under the revised order all RPOs must now be presidential appointees. Oh, and get this: from now on an agency can’t "commence rulemaking" - or even add to its regulatory plan - unless the RPO says it’s OK. Agency heads can overrule the RPO, but having to do so over and over could dampen a bureaucrat's yen for new rules, which is probably the general idea.

While so-called independent agencies like the SEC are exempt from parts of the executive order, the stuff about regulatory plans and RPO approval does apply to them. I meandered around on the SEC website but ran out of patience before I could find the name of the agency's current RPO. (A free Sonny and Cher CD awaits anyone who can tell me.) Of course, the SEC Chairman is a presidential appointee and no political novice, so maybe he can just do the job himself.

To borrow Sonny Bono’s epitaph, when it comes to the Bush administration and de facto deregulation, the beat goes on.