Regulatory agencies have stepped up enforcement, study says

The Obama administration has relied less on voluntary compliance and more on tools for enforcement of regulations aimed at protecting worker safety, consumer health and the environment, according to a study released on Monday by the nonprofit OMB Watch.

The report also noted current agency officials have viewed many enforcement issues "through the lens of external crises," such as the April 5 explosion in the Upper Big Branch West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 miners and the April 20 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 oil rig workers.

"The agencies examined in this report appear to be exercising their enforcement authority more strenuously than they had in recent years," said the analysis written by six OMB Watch staff members. For example, at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency "certain metrics of enforcement activity are rising, and the agencies appear to be reevaluating their regulatory enforcement strategies and focusing on specific problem areas in their respective domains."

The paper examined data on budgets and made "qualitative" judgments based on documents from the major regulatory agencies, including the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Among the report's highlights:

  • At OSHA, the number of safety and health violations cited by federal and state agency inspectors during President Obama's first year rose by 167 percent over the previous year's total, and officials are shifting the agency's attention toward high-risk sectors and repeat violators;
  • FDA has issued more warning letters to firms that appear to be in violation of the agency's rules and has been a leader in the administration's efforts to crack down on misleading health claims promoted on product packaging;
  • EPA is moving more quickly now than under the Bush administration to cite violators of environmental law, handing out more penalties, for example, to enforce clean air and waste management regulations.

OMB Watch analysts noted several factors they said have contributed to agencies' ability to administer successful enforcement programs. "Translating strategy into action requires proper planning and sufficient resources," they wrote. "The most effective administrations combine strategy and implementation by showing a willingness to hold violators accountable for their actions." What also is needed, however, is "even application of regulation through enforcement" to create "a level playing field for law-abiding citizens, organizations and businesses," they said.

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