Regulatory Oversight in the Clinton Administration

By Duffy, Robert | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Regulatory Oversight in the Clinton Administration


Duffy, Robert, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Today we are sending a clear message to the special interests who used the Council on Competitiveness as a back door to avoid the law. That back door is closed. No longer will special interests receive special favors. No longer will our laws be ignored or undermined. No longer will decisions that should be made in public be made in private. In this administration, everyone will play by the rules and public decisions will be public information.

Al Gore, January 21, 1993

With these strong words, Vice President Al Gore announced yet another White House overhaul of regulatory oversight. Gore's statement, made on the first full day of the Clinton presidency, clearly signalled the administration's desire to distance itself from the widely criticized policies and procedures of the Bush White House. But just how different is regulatory review in the Clinton administration?

After all, in recent years presidents of both parties have used their executive powers to enhance their control of agency rulemaking. These actions are understandable, given the scope of federal regulatory programs, their potential economic consequences, and the public's propensity to hold presidents accountable for the nation's economic performance. Nonetheless, centralized regulatory review has been controversial because it raises questions about whether the president or Congress has the ultimate power to shape the actions of executive branch actors. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, for example, devised highly centralized review procedures which gave them greater control over rulemaking Congressional Democrats perceived these actions as an attempt to undercut their own control over federal agencies, and regulatory politics became the focus of a pitched partisan and institutional battle.

The Clinton presidency thus raises a number of interesting questions for students of regulatory politics. Has the Clinton administration ushered in a less conflictual era of regulatory oversight? Has it, like most recent administrations, sought to control rulemaking through centralized review procedures? Although the Clinton White House has mandated numerous procedural changes, in my opinion, it has not abandoned the concept of centralized review. Indeed, regulatory review in the Clinton administration builds upon previous efforts and its firmly within traditions of the institutional presidency. While rejecting the insulated and secretive practices characteristic of the Reagan and Bush era, the Clinton White House review program is, in many ways, the broadest and most far-reaching yet.

Information for this study has been gathered from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) documents, congressional hearings, newspaper accounts, and from interviews conducted with persons knowledgeable about regulatory review procedures. The interviews were open-ended and varied in length. In several cases, individuals requested that their names be withheld.

Regulatory Review and the Administrative Presidency

Regulatory reform is a common presidential goal. Indeed, White House efforts to gain greater control over federal rulemaking are a logical stage in the development of the modern "institutional presidency." According to Terry Moe, the institutional presidency is rooted in an incongruence, inherent in modern American politics, among structures, incentives, and resources. Simply put, presidents are burdened by expectations that far exceed their institutional capacity for effective action. Presidents seeking to enhance their capacity thus have strong incentives to initiate structural reforms, but the resources for acting on these incentives are usually inadequate, "constrained by political and bureaucratic opposition, institutional inertia, inadequate knowledge, and time pressures."(1) The result has been the emergence of an "administrative presidency," characterized by an increasingly centralized and politicized executive department which allows presidents to pursue their personal and programmatic goals through unilateral executive action. …

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