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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Gets Caught Up in Red Tape

President Barack Obama incorrectly claimed his administration has undertaken an "unprecedented" review of burdensome regulations. In fact, every president since at least Jimmy Carter has done similar reviews, including one under Bill Clinton that resulted in the elimination of more than 16,000 pages of federal regulations.

Obama made his claim during his hour-long press conference on June 29:

Obama, June 29: But what I have done — and this is unprecedented, by the way, no administration has done this before — is I’ve said to each agency, don't just look at current regulations — or don't just look at future regulations, regulations that we’re proposing, let’s go backwards and look at regulations that are already on the books, and if they don't make sense, let’s get rid of them. And we are in the process of doing that, and we’ve already identified changes that could potentially save billions of dollars for companies over the next several years. 

The Government Accountability Office in a 2007 report called "Reexaming Regulations" said every president since Jimmy Carter "has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations." The White House Office of Management and Budget provides a history of regulatory relief efforts dating to Richard Nixon, who in 1971 created "a little known review group in the White House called the 'Quality of Life Review' program" that "focused solely on environmental regulations to minimize burdens on business." Roger B. Porter, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote that the Ford administration that followed "set a precedent for requiring regulatory agencies to first analyze and then report on their assessment of the economic costs and benefits associated with new regulations." Porter said the "wave of enthusiasm for regulatory reform was stimulated by the sagging performance of the economy in the mid-1970s."

For the sake of examples, let's look at two presidents of different parties who launched extensive programs to review existing and proposed regulations: Republican Ronald Reagan, who famously said "government is the problem" in his 1981 inaugural speech, and Democrat Bill Clinton, who declared "the era of big Government is over" in his 1996 State of the Union address. Both men put their vice presidents in charge of task forces on regulatory relief. Like Obama, both presidents claimed to have saved billions of dollars by eliminating unnecessary regulations.

Reagan issued an executive order establishing the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief "to reduce the burdens of existing and future regulations." He appointed Vice President George H.W. Bush as chairman. Two years later, the task force was abolished and its responsibilities were assumed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, according to a 1989 GAO report. The Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1984 that Reagan's efforts resulted in "limited progress."

Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 17, 1984: It put into effect a comprehensive program of regulatory review, including a requirement for cost-benefit analyses. As a result, many onerous regulations have been modified or eliminated. The administration estimates that a review of about 120 sets of regulations will save $116 billion over 10 years.

''The process is now better and fairer,'' says C. Boyden Gray, who was counsel for Vice-President George Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Relief. ''There was a sense of frustration – from businessmen, universities, cities – of being besieged by government regulations and pleading for relief. One no longer senses the same urgency and panic about the intrusiveness of government.''

As Reagan did before him, Clinton issued an executive order  to "reform and make more efficient the regulatory process" and directed his vice president, Al Gore, to manage it. The National Partnership for Reinventing Government, as it was called, claimed to have "cut 640,000 pages of internal agency rules" and "eliminated more than 16,000 pages of unnecessary federal regulations affecting businesses." In a status report issued in October 1997 and updated in 1999, Gore's group estimated that it saved $111.8 billion over five years, with the potential to save a total of $177.4 billion when fully implemented.

We do not hold out these presidential programs as examples of good government or even cast judgment on whether they were ultimately effective. But, clearly, they show that Obama wasn't the first to order a review of existing and future regulations in an effort to cut red tape and save money.

— Eugene Kiely