Sydney E. Allen
President Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Professor Neomi Rao, testified before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last Wednesday for her confirmation hearing as administrator of the small government agency responsible for overseeing federal regulatory activity. The committee also questioned Brock Long, Trump’s nominee to be Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator and Russell Vought, who has been nominated for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
While the hearing itself was not without its lightning-rod moments, Professor Rao was clearly a welcome presence in the Dirksen committee hearing room. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Rao’s one time boss on the Senate Judiciary Committee and current president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, introduced her to the committee. He summed up the position of the OIRA administrator well when he said that while it “may not receive as much fanfare as other nominations…it plays a critical role in modern policymaking.” He went on to say of Rao that “under her watch, we can expect OIRA to carefully scrutinize rules to assure that they satisfy cost-benefit analysis.”
In opening remarks, Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) called OIRA “an extremely powerful office that tends to stay out of the public eye,” and expressed that she “would not argue that the (regulatory) process that’s in place today is anywhere near perfect.” Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) encouraged Rao, if she were confirmed, to view the Senate HSGAC as a partner with OIRA.
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) touched on his bill, the Regulatory Accountability Act and asked Rao if she would support the committee’s efforts to require independent agencies to conduct cost-benefit analysis. Rao agreed that in principle, it makes sense to subject independent agencies to requirements to do cost-benefit analysis, as executive branch agencies are, which is a position former OIRA administrators have taken as well.
Portman referenced Senator Heitkamp’s proposal in the RAA to codify retrospective review of regulations, which Rao agreed was very important to reducing regulatory burden in ineffective or out of date regulations. Portman concluded his time by stressing the importance of the administration’s support in ushering the RAA through the full Senate to which Rao replied by committing to working with the Senate HSGAC on their regulatory reform proposals.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) took a poignant moment to recognize Rao’s family including her husband, Alan Lefkowitz, their two children Isabella and Ezra, her father, Dr. Jehangir Rao and her late mother, Dr. Zerin Rao, before launching into her questions. Heitkamp expressed alarm about the potential impact of President Trump’s one-in-two-out policy but echoed Senator Johnson’s request that Rao view the Senate as a partner saying, “we have to be in this together.” Heitkamp appreciated Rao’s affirmation that President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866, which “encourage(s) analysis, consideration of alternatives, and attention to the costs and benefits of agency activity,” would continue to be a guiding principle of the Trump administration, as would the 2003 guidance document, circular A-4, which reinforces best practices for agency regulating.
Heitkamp voiced her concerns about the staffing levels of OIRA, saying that she is well aware from working with past OIRA administrators that OIRA is understaffed. Rao responded by pointing out that the president’s budget calls for an increase at OIRA but that she would evaluate what resources may be necessary. Heitkamp committed to working with Rao alongside Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) if she is confirmed. (Heitkamp and Lankford serve as ranking member and chair, respectively, of the Senate Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee.)
Next up, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) voiced her appreciation for Rao’s pledge to uphold the principles of Executive Order 12866 to guide OIRA. Hassan expressed concern for the sometimes slow moving regulatory review process and asked Rao how she could improve the agility of the agency. Rao replied by saying that OIRA would move quickly and appropriately on reviewing rules based on the need for the regulation.
Given that regulatory scholars say OIRA “may be the most important office you’ve never heard of,” it was refreshing to hear many senators recognize the significance of the position of the OIRA administrator and offer to help the small, but important, agency improve the effectiveness of the regulatory review process. Unflappable in her testimony and admired by the members of the committee for her impeccable credentials and affability, it’s evident that Rao, once confirmed, will fit in well at OIRA’s helm.
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