The Washington Post reported yesterday that President-elect Obama wants Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein to serve as the head of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs ( OIRA).Â Â I’m not prepared at this point to tangleÂ intellectuallyÂ with aÂ Â magna cum laude graduate ofÂ Harvard Law School,Â who was aÂ law clerkÂ to Supreme Court JusticeÂ Thurgood Marshall and a law professor for 27 years.Â Â I am seriously worried, however,Â by some of what I’ve read of Professor Sunstein’sÂ abundant writings, and how his views may influence efforts to protectÂ public health and the environment.
One of his articles, which appeared in the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, brought back bad memories of the Reagan-era OMB and calls forÂ “risk-risk” analysis.Â Specifically, the theory goes that an OSHA regulation to protect workers from hazard X, could be so costly that an employer would shutter his factory, forcingÂ workers out of their jobs, which would be more harmful than the original hazard.Â Â In Prof. Sunstein’s article entitled The Paralyzing PrincipleÂ in theÂ Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, he writes:
“A great deal of evidence suggests the possibility that an expensive regulation can have adverse effects on life and health simply by reducing income.Â [no citations given]Â …If regulatory policies are expensive and lead to higher costs, less employment, and more poverty, the net effect may be to harm individual health.Â The empirical question is:Â How much money in terms of regulatory costs, will lead to the loss of a statistical life because of the wealth-health relationship.”
These types ofÂ economicÂ musingÂ may be interesting forÂ high-brow academic dialogues,Â butÂ what’s their value to actualÂ decision-making onÂ public health protections?Â Â There’sÂ ZERO evidence that the cost of any workplace safety or health regulationÂ causedÂ even a blip on our nation’s economic screen, let alone led to “less employment and more poverty.”Â Â Moreover, I’d argue that the true cost of failing to protect workers from toxic materials CAUSES under-employment AND poverty—-and these costs are never measured in economic impact analyses.**Â Â
This leads to the observation thatÂ Prof. Sunstein is a huge fan of cost-benefit analysis.Â Â As Rena Steinzor wrote today on CPR’s blog, Obama’s pick for the OIRA chief
“…embraces cost-benefit analysis enthusiastically.Â Defenders of cost-benefit analysis argue that we should reduce the societal costs and benefits of regulation to absolute dollar figures, no matter how ephemeral the numbersâ relationship to reality may be.Â Â Â …That formula is most definitely not what Congress intended when it passed numerous health and safety laws over the last four decades.Â Â Â
In Professor Sunstein’s 2008 articleÂ for Virginia Law Review “Is OSHA Unconstitutional?” (see SSRN) he argues that provisions on standard setting in theÂ OSH Act of 1970 areÂ unconstitutionally vague.Â Â He asserts that OSHA is vulnerable to aÂ ConstitutionalÂ challenge based on the nondelegation doctrine, trying to convince usÂ that theÂ terms “reasonably necessary or appropriate” and “feasible” are tooÂ vague for the Agency’s decision-making purposes.Â Â
His bottom line: Congress screwed up 40 years ago,Â it should have been much more precise in its direction to OSHA, andÂ he offers a remedy: a “mandate [for] some form of cost-benefit balancing.”Â Â He adds—as if goadingÂ the already enpoweredÂ opponents of protective worker standards:
“One argument for use of the non-delegation doctrine—or perhaps it isÂ a mere hope–is that invalidation of the statute might produce a better, more informed occupational safety law.”
Just in case you missed that, he’s talking about invalidation of the OSH Act (and he’d probably argue the same for theÂ Mine Act.)Â Â Â I guessÂ legal scholars like toÂ ponder such things.Â Not likely the case forÂ coal miners,Â steelworkers, chemical workers,Â construction workers, hotel housekeepers, nurses…Â Â Â Â
Law professor Steinzor elaborates:
“Poor old OSHA–the agency charged with responsibility for keeping workers safe from toxic chemicals and dangerous equipment on the job site–is barely breathing today, having issued just two rules in a decade on toxic chemicals. Yet Sunstein seems to fear that the agency will suddenly spring to life and exercise the excessive power Congress gave it. In that case, he says, companies could argue that after close to 40 years of existence, a federal court should conclude that Congress must go back to the drawing board, rewriting the OSHA statute from scratch.”
Egads!Â Â This was not theÂ “change”Â IÂ hoped for.
Steinzor correctlyÂ adds:
“This attack does more than challenge OSHAâs mission.Â It is an assault on the legal principles that justified the creation of all the health and safety agencies.”
Professor Sunstein is a prolificÂ and talented writer, and clearlyÂ a bright legal mind.Â Only he can tell us how his scholarly work will inform his practice at OIRA.Â ThisÂ obscure but powerful entityÂ within the Executive Office of the PresidentÂ was established following 1980 passage of the Paperwork Reduction Act.Â Its authority has grown substantially over the decades—expanding way beyond reviews of potential “paperwork burden,” to detailed reviews of agencies’ proposed and final rules, and mandates to agencies on peer review, risk assessment, and data quality.
As the Center for Progressive Reform observes:
“OIRA has become a White House choke point for regulations, exercising broad policy discretion that Congress delegated to agencies, not OIRA.Â While conducting its reviews, OIRA retains substantial authority to change angency rules or to return them to the submitting agency if it finds that the rule under review fails to achieve OIRA’s conception of economic efficiency.” (CPR report, p.25)
Given OIRA’s history, that’s why Prof. Sunstein’sÂ regulatory philosophyÂ must be examined closely before he is confirmed.Â His 2002Â book Risk and Reason could be a starting point.Â Â In a review of the book by Notre Dame professor Kristine Shrader-Frechette, she writes:
Sunstein’s “Chapter 7 defends the Bush administrationâs proposed suspension of Environmental Protection Agency regulations for arsenic in drinking water.Â This presidential move is exactly what Sunstein recommends throughout the book: dropping regulations, including arsenic protections, that fail the cost-benefitÂ test.”
Professor Sunstein argues for a strict cost-benefit test forÂ health protective air pollution regualtions in his 1999 paperÂ Is the Clean Air Act Unconstitutional?Â Â Â He’s also not convinced that a ban on asbestos is appropriate, writing in his critique of the precautionary principle in theÂ Cato Institute’s Reason magazine, he writes:
“a ban [on asbestos] that might well seem justified or even compelled by the principle.Â The difficulty, from the standpoint of that very principle, is that substitutes for asbestos also carry risks.”
OK. OK.Â I’ve read quite enough for one day.Â Now, it’s your jobÂ to read for yourself some ofÂ Cass Sunstein’s workÂ Â and form your own opinion.Â I’ll be doing the same.
**Note from above reference to theÂ cost of failing to protect workers from toxic materials, which should (but doesn’t) includeÂ associated underemployment AND poverty:
I had a friend who was aÂ former construction equipment operator in the heavy quartz-ladenÂ region of Arkansas.Â Â HeÂ developed severe silicosis before age 40 and was told by his doctor to get out of the dust to save his lungs.Â He’d been a dozer operator at aggregate mines since he was 17—that was his job, he didn’t know anything else.Â He reluctantly took his doctor’s advice andÂ found a minimum wage office-type job—his family income was cut in half andÂ they no longer had health insurance.Â (HeÂ died from silicosis and in the few years proceeding his death, the economic, social and emotional costs on his family were tremendous.)Â Â Believe me, theÂ costs of failing to regulate are never adequately quantified in economic impact analyses—-not even close.Â
As J.T. Knuckles reminded us in 1997, talking about the things in his life robbed by silicosis, “what price would you put on being able to make love to your wife?”Â If you have silicosis, black lung or other diseases, you probably know what J.T. meant.
Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at the George Washington University School of Public Health.