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Obama moves to weed out burdensome federal rules

The president's executive order for a government-wide review of regulations is an attempt to mollify business leaders as well as to bypass a hostile Congress.

January 18, 2011|By Peter Nicholas and Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — In his push to scrap onerous regulations on companies, President Obama is not only trying to patch a strained relationship with business leaders but also displaying a new strategy to bypass a hostile Congress and protect his political interests.

Obama signed an executive order Tuesday that aims to weed out rules that administration officials admitted could be burdensome for companies struggling to recover from the deep recession.

The executive order preempts House Republicans who had planned to make an extensive review of federal regulations their next major priority after an attempt to repeal Obama's healthcare law.

By invoking his executive authority, Obama showed that he no longer sees Congress as the main arena for advancing his agenda, as he did when his own party controlled both the House and the Senate.

Unhappy with marathon fights in Congress, White House advisors were looking for better ways to showcase Obama as a leader and get the focus off the messy partisan clashes on Capitol Hill. The president's executive order is an example of the new strategy in action.

Obama took the unusual step of trumpeting his order through an op-ed piece written for the Wall Street Journal. The forum seemed designed to get the attention of two crucial constituencies who have abandoned Obama: business leaders and independent voters.

"This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth," Obama wrote.

"And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive."

Obama's action fits a pattern since the midterm elections of mollifying business leaders disenchanted with his policies. Since Republicans won control of the House and picked up seats in the Senate, the president has extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and appointed William Daley, a former banking executive, as his chief of staff.

Obama also is scheduled next month to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an old nemesis and the nation's most powerful business lobby.

Regulations have been a favorite target for business. Chamber executives have said the administration unleashed a "regulatory tsunami" that is the biggest challenge to job creation and U.S. competitiveness abroad.

"We cannot allow this nation to move from a government of the people to a government of the regulators," chamber President Thomas Donohue said last week.

One part of Obama's order requires federal agencies to write regulations with a view toward boosting the economy and creating jobs. Another calls upon agencies to go back and pore over existing regulations to make sure they are up to date.

An open question is whether the president's new policy might roll back regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global warming. Obama's environmental regulators are attempting to regulate greenhouse gases on their own, but business lobbyists have balked at the attempt.

One former administration official, who asked not to be named, said: "If this signals a more restrictive posture at the agencies, greenhouse gas regulation could be affected."

But an official with the Environmental Protection Agency countered: "EPA is confident that our recent and upcoming steps to address [greenhouse gas] emissions under the Clean Air Act comfortably pass muster under the sensible standards the president has laid out."

It seems doubtful that Obama will win back business support in the near term. Many business leaders remain bothered by aggressive rhetoric from the White House over the last two years about Wall Street's behavior. They also dislike the system enacted by Obama to police banks and prevent another collapse of the financial system.

Yet old foes also credit the president for his latest moves.

Donohue released a statement calling Obama's announcement "a positive first step."

Dan Danner, head of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses, said, "It has been a long time coming for small-business owners to hear this from this administration, and we will be watching closely to see if today's directive leads to real regulatory reform."

As with his other post-midterm steps toward the political center, Obama is getting an earful from his liberal base.

Progressive groups contend that the BP oil spill, the financial collapse of 2008, mine explosions and product recalls point to the hazards of too little regulation.

What's more, demanding that agencies spend time reviewing old regulations distracts them from the important work of protecting the public, some groups argued.

Inside the White House, aides aren't worried that liberals will bolt. They believe that when the 2012 election rolls around the left will line up behind Obama, but they know the president also must reconnect with independent voters.

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