Lawmakers asked OMB acting director Russell Vought to require agencies to extend comment periods. OMB has so far left the decision up to individual agencies to make on a case-by-case basis.

Lawmakers asked OMB acting director Russell Vought to require agencies to extend comment periods. OMB has so far left the decision up to individual agencies to make on a case-by-case basis. Alex Brandon / AP

OMB Isn’t Requiring Agencies to Extend Public Comment Periods for Rulemaking During Coronavirus

OMB says the agencies have the discretion to make their own decisions. 

The Trump administration is not directing agencies to extend the amount of time alloted for public feedback on regulatory changes during the coronavirus outbreak, despite calls from lawmakers to do so.

On Wednesday, 14 top House Democrats asked the Office of Management and Budget to direct agencies to extend public comment periods on regulatory changes posted in the Federal Register by at least 45 days beyond the end of the national emergency. They asked that OMB include comment periods that closed from March 13 to the present and those still open. Also they requested that OMB temporarily postpone public hearings and meetings. This comes as the administration is looking to implement several controversial environmental rule changes. OMB is leaving it up to agencies to decide, however.

“Americans engage in the administrative process in numerous ways, including by attending public hearings or submitting comments on agency actions subject to notice-and-comment procedures,” the lawmakers wrote to acting OMB Director Russell Vought. “A review of reveals hundreds of federal agency comment periods with deadlines for public comment in the month ahead.”

The lawmakers cited several rule changes Trump is looking to make as the nation is engulfed in the global pandemic and citizens’ personal and work lives have been upended in order to heed public health guidance.

One is the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule to modify the 2018 version to “ensure that the science supporting the agency’s decisions is transparent and available for independent validation while still maintaining protection of confidential and personally identifiable information,” as EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press release. The rule was published in the Federal Register on March 18 with 30 days for public comment. 

The various versions of the rule have been criticized by scientists and experts who “argue the transparency measures the Trump administration says are needed are just a red herring used to justify limiting scientific research for political purposes,” The Hill reported.

Another proposed rule change the senators cited was the EPA’s proposed rollback of an Obama-era protection against ponds with dangerous waste from coal-burning power plants, which many environmental groups have opposed. It was published on March 3 and public comment will close on April 17. The lawmakers said they are “concerned that the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will deprive citizens, local communities, and other stakeholders the opportunity to engage with agencies on these major policy revisions and many other rulemakings.”

When asked if OMB will consider these requests and respond to the letter, an OMB spokesperson told Government Executive, “Agencies have been advised to consider extending comment periods on a case-by-case basis in their discretion, consistent with sensitivity to urgency in particular rulemakings.” The agency did not respond to questions about the meetings and hearings.

Besides the examples noted in the letter, the administration is looking to make other regulatory changes as well, The New York Times reported. David Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, told the paper, “The administration is essentially taking advantage of the fact that the public is distracted and in fact disabled from fully engaging against this ideological push.”