Yes, Regulation Can Make Government Better

Former regulatory official Cass Sunstein explains why regulation shouldn't be a partisan issue.

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Conversations about regulation often focus on whether there's too much or not enough of it. In "Simpler: The Future of Government," Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, argues that regulation is not a partisan issue, but rather a tool to make government more efficient. He recently spoke with U.S. News about regulatory changes under the Obama administration, upcoming challenges and why he says the current debate on regulation is wrong. Excerpts:

What is the OIRA, and what does it do?

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs was given its present responsibilities in the early 1980s and it has two principal roles. The first is to oversee federal regulation, which means that significant regulations can't be issued by the executive agencies unless they've been approved through the OIRA process. It also oversees the Paperwork Reduction Act, which means that if the government is collecting information from the American people, OIRA has to approve the collection.

What is a "nudge" in the world of regulation?

A nudge is a response to a public policy problem that maintains freedom of choice and that doesn't involve coercion, but that helps people. In terms of current policy, a nudge is disclosure. So, for example, if people are given relevant information about health care plans, credit cards or mortgages, that information counts as a nudge.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

What was the most notable change made during your time at OIRA?

The most important step was an executive order on federal regulation issued by the president in January 2011. Executive Order 13563 is like a mini-constitution for the regulatory state. It establishes a series of principles that all executive agencies have to follow. The principles include scientific integrity, careful analysis of costs and benefits, selection of flexible approaches that maintain freedom of choice, coordination of agency activity so as to ensure against inconsistency and redundancy, and the regulatory lookback, which is an effort to look at rules on the books to take away the ones that aren't working or that are outmoded because of changed circumstances.

What is regulatory moneyball?

People in baseball, and sports generally, are increasingly using statistical methods to see about [a player's] future performance. For regulation, the idea is we shouldn't be looking at what interest groups think, or at institutions, anecdotes or dogmas. What regulatory moneyball tries to do is get a careful analysis of both costs and benefits, so we know as best we can whether a rule will actually be valuable in terms of public health and safety and whether a rule would be harmful to the economy.

What about regulation is most misunderstood?

Probably the most serious misunderstanding is that the choice is typically between more regulation, which some people like and some people hate, or less regulation, which some people like and some people hate. Often, the sound bites about too much regulation or too little regulation can be cut through if we try to get very concrete about what the actual effects of the particular regulation would be. We should be moving more toward a debate about what are the best tools for achieving our goals, and what approach would have net benefits, meaning benefits in excess of cost.

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What causes regulation to fail?

One reason a regulation fails sometimes is it's so complicated people can't understand it, and the best way to avoid that is to have greater clarity and simplicity. Sometimes a regulation fails because it's more expensive than is justified [or] because it's too weak.

Is simplification a partisan issue?

It shouldn't be. If you look at the best consumer products now, a lot of them are so simple that a child can use them. It should be that the interactions between citizens and governments are increasingly like the interactions between consumers and the best consumer products. You shouldn't have to struggle to navigate them.