Washington (AP) - In a city that loves to argue over what next to add to the government's already fat rulebook, there's a big push to rethink what's already there.
All across town, agencies are holding hearings, scouring specs, setting up websites and assembling plans to carry out President Barack Obama's order for a "retrospective review" of decade upon decade of government regulations.
The hunt is on for rules that are -- to pull a few words from the order itself -- excessively burdensome, redundant, inconsistent, overlapping, outmoded, ineffective, insufficient. Or, as the president put it, "just plain dumb."
Regulations translate laws into action, and touch all aspects of American life.
There are rules on how to keep water clean and how much water should be used to flush a toilet; for how much gas cars can guzzle, and -- under one now in the works -- for rear-view cameras or sensors to keep drivers from backing over toddlers; for how to build commercial airplanes -- right down to their nuts and bolts -- and for how to launch amateur model rockets.
Obama's pledge to put the federal rulebook under a microscope has conservatives clamoring for him to rip up pages of red tape, yet skeptical he will deliver. Liberals increasingly worry that the Obama administration will bow to political pressure and weaken or scrap important health, safety and environmental protections.
The notion that there are reams of "dumb" rules ripe for the taking is rejected by experts on federal regulation. They say any easy targets already were eliminated by past administrations that made their own runs at over-regulation.
"If it's still on the books, there's probably a reason for it," says Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University's School of Law. He does allow that "there are a ton of regulations that could be made more efficient, where we could achieve the same goal at lower costs."
At the center of this mammoth undertaking is Cass Sunstein, Obama's regulatory chief, who says the debate over whether the government has too many regulations misses the point.
"The question is how to get it right, not do we want more or less," Sunstein said in an interview.
He's promised members of Congress, where Republicans rail against government regulations as job-killers, "everything is fair game" in the review, dating to rules imposed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Agencies have until mid-May to submit their proposed plans, which are expected to include lists of rules already changed or soon to be.
Sunstein is a soft-spoken academic superstar who gave up teaching at Harvard Law to direct the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an obscure alcove of the federal bureaucracy known by its acronym, OIRA (oh-EYE-ruh). The office was created in 1980 to serve as a check on regulators-run-amok. It long has been viewed with suspicion by those who favor an activist government.
Now Obama's Executive Order 13563 -- and the fact that Sunstein is overseeing how the order is being put into place -- is giving some activists a fresh case of the jitters.
"It's very sad," says Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a think tank of university scholars. Sunstein, she said, is "more enthusiastic about the Republican agenda than the president is, and that's unfortunate."
She points to a recent White House blog post by Sunstein in which he listed a number of regulations that the government has pulled back on, and accuses Sunstein of gloating over the "scalps" he's produced. Among them: the withdrawal of a Labor Department rule requiring companies to report musculoskeletal disorders among their employees, and an Environmental Protection Agency move to ease up on regulating global warming pollution from facilities that burn biomass such as farm waste and sawmill scraps for energy.
Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state and local air pollution control officials, says that while there may be some rules that are expendable, the administration should focus on fending off GOP efforts in Congress to eviscerate environmental regulations that are crucial to protecting public health.
"Rome is burning, and this isn't the best and most effective time for the administration to be looking at very benign burdensome reporting requirements that are annoying to some stakeholder," Becker said.
Republicans are leery of Obama's instructions that agencies look at not just the economic costs and benefits of proposed rules but also take into consideration "values that are difficult or impossible to quantify," such as fairness and human dignity.
Sunstein says it's possible to balance the competing calls for cost-effective rules, strong health and safety protections, and subjective matters such as dignity. He cited a proposed rule to require rear-view cameras or sensors on cars as a regulation whose cost is justified by the "equity" of keeping people from running over toddlers when backing up their cars. He notes that he has an almost-2-year-old.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said Sunstein and the regulatory review should focus on creating jobs and not such "subjective values."
"Although we can hope that Mr. Sunstein will be effective in curbing the administration's regulatory burdens that hamper job creation and economic growth, the record of the Obama administration indicates that he would have little support," says Stearns, whose House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee summoned Sunstein to testify at one of the first hearings after Republicans took control of the House.
The administration has put out about 500 rules since the president took office, and Sunstein says they will save far more money than ones that previous presidents adopted in the same time frame. Rules adopted in the first two years of the Obama administration will save $35.5 billion, according to OIRA, compared with $2.3 billion for President George W. Bush's early rules and $10.6 billion under President Bill Clinton.
Government insiders say the president's review order has empowered Sunstein to move aggressively to rein in regulations, especially as Obama shifts toward the political center for the 2012 election. But it remains to be seen how much backing from the president Sunstein will have as the review moves from the theoretical realm to the business of ditching specific rules.
"Cass is going to have to find a way to both really address the concerns from some businesses and the need for public protections," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a private group that monitors federal regulatory actions. So far, says Bass, the administration's approach to rulemaking "raises a perception that the administration is serving up certain elements to the business community."
John Graham, Sunstein's predecessor under Bush, cautioned that past efforts to reduce government regulation have run into institutional resistance.
"For regulators, it is much more sexy to adopt a new regulation than to fix a mess that has been created in the past," Graham said.
Graham says Sunstein will have to bring out his "inner bulldog" to deliver, now that Obama has heightened expectations for reduced regulation.
Sunstein says agencies are enthusiastic about rethinking federal regulations and won't need to be bludgeoned.
"On the squash court, I try to bring out my inner bulldog," says Sunstein, whose squash team is known as "The Regulators."
But on the regulatory review, he adds, "I haven't felt at all that I need to crack a backhand cross-court."