by Lisa Heinzerling, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law
“The easiest way to save money,” President Obama declared in his 2012 State of the Union address, “is to waste less energy.” In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama took another step and issued “a new goal for America”: “let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” The President also vowed that if Congress did not “act soon” to address climate change, he would “direct [his] Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Such welcome sentiments! So sensible and right and good! But here is a puzzling fact: at the same moment President Obama was uttering these wise and welcome remarks, his White House was blocking rules to promote the very energy efficiency he was extolling. Far from urging the Cabinet to come up with executive actions on climate, his own White House was blocking his Cabinet from taking executive actions on climate. That situation persists to this day.
To understand this rather startling state of affairs, we need some background about how the regulatory system works today. Congress has passed laws to increase in many different respects the energy efficiency of the “homes and businesses” the President talked about. Like most complicated contemporary laws, the laws on energy efficiency are implemented by an administrative agency, in this case the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE writes rules that take the basic mandates given by Congress and give them shape; the agency specifies, for example, just how efficient new refrigerators and microwaves and lamps and buildings must be to meet Congress’s requirements.
Once DOE writes a rule, however, it does not simply issue it. Instead, the rule must first pass through a White House office that oversees the federal rulemaking process – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. Under executive orders reaffirmed or issued by President Obama, no rule deemed significant by OIRA can be issued without OIRA’s approval. In the Obama administration, moreover, OIRA has increasingly become simply a portal into the political machinery of the larger White House. Rules go to OIRA and, from there, to the Domestic Policy Council, the White House economic offices, the White House Chief of Staff, even sometimes the President himself. (The former head of OIRA in this administration, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, documents (and lauds) this new reality in his recent book, “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)
This is how the White House has come to block the very kinds of initiatives President Obama seemed to praise in his State of the Union addresses: energy efficiency rules have gone from DOE to OIRA and have never left. As of this writing, nine rules from DOE on energy efficiency are stuck at OIRA. Five have been there since 2011, three since 2012. Six are not final rules; they are merely proposals. Four of the rules are not even economically significant (that is, they do not impose costs of more than $100 million per year). But all of these rules are stuck, all the same.