Pop Quiz: what’s the most powerful government office you’ve never heard of?

Maybe a secretive national security office or covert operations outfit? Think again. Actually the most powerful government office you’ve never heard of, according to the former head of the office, is called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, referred to as OIRA for those in the know. To be fair, many readers of this blog are probably in the know — which is a good thing, since tomorrow is the Senate confirmation hearing for the new nominee to head OIRA, Howard Shelanski.

But for those who aren’t familiar with OIRA, a little background is in order. OIRA is a small office within the Office of Management and Budget, meaning, for all intents and purposes, that it’s an extension of the White House. Its job, in a nutshell, is to review regulations from agencies and give the green light before agencies can go ahead with putting those regulations in place. Sounds pretty banal and technical, right? Not quite.

On the surface, OIRA seems like any other White House office that Republicans love to bash (particularly since this one deals with so-called “job-killing” regulations). But scratch below the surface, and you find that Republicans have actually been proposing numerous pieces of legislation in the last few years that would give much more power to this small White House office. In fact, when it comes to Republicans giving the White House more authority, it’s hard to find a better example than OIRA. If you’re like me, you’re probably starting to hear the “Twilight Zone” music somewhere in the background …

Why is this happening? Because Republicans and the Big Business interests that bankroll their campaigns believe that OIRA is their ally in seeking to stall, water down and even roll back crucial new regulatory standards.

OIRA’s recent track record, not to mention historical record, bears this out. OIRA was established in the Reagan administration to counter what Republicans saw as “overzealous regulators.” Under the Obama administration, OIRA still routinely overrides decisions from the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other agencies working to protect the public. OIRA, as it was first conceived, is working, and Republicans want to make sure it only gets stronger.

Last week, a group of prominent Congress members sent a letter to newly appointed OMB director Sylvia Burwell asking her to inform Congress of the status of rules that have been “badly delayed” by OIRA review. They rightly point out that a fundamental lack of transparency has kept the explanation for those delays hidden behind closed doors. For example, the silica rule, a crucial worker safety rule that would protect workers from exposure to a known carcinogen, has been under review at OIRA for an astonishing 814 days. What could possibly warrant such a lengthy review? Don’t bother asking anyone at OIRA … they won’t tell you.

Instead, urge HSGAC members to ask Shelanski if he’ll end the gridlock or continue to thwart life-saving regulations.

Amit Narang is the regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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