Today the Senate confirmed Neomi Rao as administrator of the Office for Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is charged with vetting the federal government's regulatory activities for cost-benefit sanity and recognizable legislative intent. Rao, founder of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School, has a long track record of criticizing the accrual of power and latitude at the executive branch's regulatory agencies (see Christian Britschgi's detailed report from earlier this month). The vote was 59-36.
Six Democrats joined the entire Republican caucus and independent Angus King of Maine in voting yes. Key moderate Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) likely sealed the deal with her enthusiastic endorsement Monday: "I look forward to finding opportunities to join with the Trump Administration to reduce the regulatory burden on Missouri small businesses," McCaskill said in a statement. "I'm hopeful about working with Ms. Rao to eliminate unnecessary regulations while protecting Missourians' health and safety." Rao had sailed through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week by a vote of 11-4, including affirmatives from Democrats McCaskill, Tom Carper (Del.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.). Heitkamp had said during Rao's confirmation hearings, "we are very excited about the expertise you bring." Only staunch regulatory activists seemed to sound the alarm against Rao, and they didn't have much notable influence.
Hiring a knowledgeable regulatory reformer in this position is a big deal. As mentioned in this post of mine a month ago, when I was interviewing deregulatory specialists for my recent cover story on the possibilities of Donald Trump's presidency, the number-one future indicator they told me to look out for was whether Trump would tab someone good for OIRA. How is Rao seen in that universe? Here's Kent Lassman, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), from earlier today:
CEI applauds the confirmation of Neomi Rao as the next Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Administrator Rao brings years of respected scholarship on the regulatory process and a principled perspective to one of the most important jobs in Washington. She combines strong scholarly credentials with success as a policy entrepreneur….Now is the time to bring the regulatory state to heel, back to reason, and under the law. Neomi Rao is the right woman for the job.
And Rao—or at least a paragraph in Rao's opening statement during her confirmation hearings—has drawn praise from one of her more respected Democratic predecessors at the job, Cass R. Sunstein, who directed OIRA from 2009-2012. Was Sunstein just working the refs a bit (Rao's sentiments "are in real tension with numerous comments from the Trump administration," he asserted), and/or trying to buck up his ex-colleagues who are dreading the new gal? Maybe. But consider this: His very next column, about the Senate's Regulatory Accountability Act (read Eric Boehm on that here), was headlined "A Regulatory Reform Bill That Everyone Should Like: Look! Bipartisanship is alive, and cranking out good ideas." Excerpt:
[C]ongressional Republicans, joined by some Democrats, have been thinking seriously about regulatory reform. They've produced an intelligent, constructive, complex, imperfect bill – the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017 – that deserves careful attention. […]
Though progressive groups have raised some legitimate (if overheated) concerns, most of its provisions deserve bipartisan support. […]
The good news is that Portman and Heitkamp have produced a bill that reflects much of the learning of the last three decades, that emphasizes the importance of science and economics, and that could ultimately lead to higher benefits and lower costs. Its flaws need to be corrected – but it has a lot of promise.
Read the whole Sunstein piece for more detail (including criticisms and suggestions).
The Rao/Sunstein overlap reinforces the notion that the most serious policy work being done in the Trump administration is on regulation, where a long-sidelined intellectual tradition is finally being deployed and given latitude by a president in one of the areas he has the most power.
Read a huge pile of Trump-era Reason regulation pieces at the bottom of this link.