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February 20, 2017

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Obama’s war on red tape

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Here are three things the Obama administration has done that you probably didn’t know about:

• Ever struggle with those accordion-style rubber sleeves on nozzles at the gas station? The sleeve — technically a “vapor recovery nozzle” — was required by the Environmental Protection Agency to keep gasoline vapors from leaking into the air. But most cars and trucks now have technology that does the job better, so last year the EPA abolished the nozzle requirement. Because each sleeve-equipped nozzle can cost as much as $300, the change will save gas stations thousands of dollars.

• Ever apply for financial aid for a child heading for college? Until 2010, the application form — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — was a parents’ nightmare. (I write from personal experience here.) It required digging up information from multiple sources, and the complexity of the task discouraged thousands of families from applying for aid. So the Department of Education got to work and simplified the form. Some applicants can now complete much of it automatically, importing online data from their tax returns. The new FAFSA still asks too many questions — 116, down from 127 on the old one — but it’s a big improvement.

• Ever come back from a trip overseas, only to find yourself stuck in a horrifyingly long line at immigration control? Now there’s a program called Global Entry that allows frequent travelers to undergo a pre-screening process, skip the line and run their passports through an automated kiosk, like self-checkout at the supermarket. This program actually started under George W. Bush, but the Obama administration has expanded it big time. I’ve tried it, and it works.

All three stories are examples of a little-recognized push by the Obama administration to streamline federal regulations.

Until last year, the effort was led by Cass Sunstein, who ran an obscure corner of the Washington bureaucracy called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Now a professor at Harvard Law School, Sunstein is an evangelist for simplification and consumer-friendly language and design.

One of his proudest accomplishments, he says, was nudging the Department of Agriculture toward replacing its old “food pyramid” with a simpler “food plate” showing that half your diet should be fruits and vegetables. He presided over big-ticket items too, including a rule to standardize safety warning labels that could save employers as much as $2.5 billion, and a rule to simplify doctors’ and nurses’ paperwork that could save hospitals and medical practices as much as $5 billion.

“My job was helping people figure out how government can make people’s lives better, and how we can eliminate red tape and complexity,” he told me.

In his recent book, “Simpler: The Future of Government,” Sunstein points to a surprising statistic: In his first four years, he says, Obama issued fewer new federal regulations than any of the four presidents who came before him, including Ronald Reagan. Obama’s revocation of hundreds of outmoded rules produced savings for government, business and consumers that will add up to billions, he says.

But wait, I hear you say. Isn’t Obama a big-government Democrat? Isn’t he responsible for two of the biggest expansions of federal power in recent history, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (more often known as Obamacare) and the 2011 Financial Regulatory Responsibility Act?

The answer, of course, is yes: Obama is a big-government man, and so is Sunstein. They don’t hide their belief in an activist federal government; they just want to make it smarter and more effective.

Sunstein is frustrated that the administration hasn’t gotten credit for its regulation-trimming efforts. And indeed, conservative critics dispute his numbers, saying that even if the number of regulations issued has declined, the number of rules with a major economic impact has risen.

Even those who admire the streamlining, though, say it hasn’t gotten much recognition. “They haven’t advertised it very well,” said Elaine Kamarck, who ran the high-visibility “reinventing government” campaign of the Clinton administration and is now at the Brookings Institution. “No one knows that they’ve even been trying, let alone that they’ve accomplished anything.”

And that, she says, makes no sense, especially for a Democrat. “If no one knows about your efforts,” she says, “then the deep-seated cynicism Americans have about the efficiency of government will constrain the efforts of any activist president.”

Public opinion polls bear her out. Under Clinton, the percentage of Americans who said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing gradually rose. Under Obama, it’s plummeted. A Pew Research Poll last month found that only 28 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of the federal government, down from 42 percent in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. Even a majority of Democrats said they had an unfavorable view of the federal government.

For an administration that’s trying to implement an ambitious new health care program as one of its top priorities, those are daunting numbers.

So here’s an assignment for Obama’s new director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a Clinton administration veteran so universally respected that she won unanimous confirmation in the Senate last week: It’s time to relaunch your boss’ government reform agenda. It’s time to hire someone to succeed Sunstein, whose job has been vacant for eight months. It’s time to renew Obama’s “regulatory look-back,” a program that nominated 580 useless regulations for the scrapheap and actually dumped a lot of them.

And when you’ve done all that, it’s time to make sure the American public knows about it.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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