'Regulatory czar' nomination clears Senate panel

May 20, 2009 10:05:28 AM PDT
Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein won committee approval from a Senate panel on Wednesday -- moving the renowned legal scholar closer to becoming the nation's "regulatory czar." Sunstein would lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an obscure but powerful office that clears, helps revise or rejects new rules proposed by the major federal agencies.

His nomination now heads to the full Senate after clearing the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was the lone vote against Sunstein.

President Barack Obama chose Sunstein, a friend and former colleague from the University of Chicago, for the post last month. Small business groups have praise for him, but critics scoff at his support for cost-benefit analysis as a tool in assessing regulations.

It's hard to put a price on certain benefits such as deaths avoided or clean air, says Matt Madia, a policy analyst at OMB Watch, a private watchdog group that scrutinizes federal management. "The biggest fear is that it (cost-benefit analysis) will be used as the only factor that a government official uses to make their decision," Madia said.

His group was more encouraged after Sunstein's testimony last week. During his nomination hearing, Sunstein pledged an "inclusive and humanized" approach.

"Cost-benefit analysis shouldn't put regulation in an arithmetic straitjacket," said Sunstein. "There are values -- moral, distributional, aesthetic, and otherwise -- that have to play a part in the overall judgment about what's to be done."

Sunstein also promised "more plain English" in the regulatory process and he sought to allay concerns raised by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Sunstein had been quoted as saying that hunting should be banned. The remark, Sunstein said, was meant as a "provocation."

He added that he believes the Second Amendment protects the right to hunt and that he does not want to ban hunting.

The office Sunstein would head, OIRA, is housed within the White House Office of Management and Budget. Before proposing regulations, agencies must submit their plans to OIRA for review to make sure they are consistent with the president's priorities. OIRA can clear the rule, ask for changes, or reject it altogether.

Sunstein earned two degrees from Harvard and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He has written more than 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles.

Sunstein is married to Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who called Hillary Rodham Clinton "a monster" while working to elect Obama. She resigned over the remark but later returned to work as a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama.

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