The History of Retrospective Regulatory Review

As part of President Obama’s executive order on “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” he called for agencies to conduct  “Retrospective Analyses of Existing Rules,”  and to “modify, streamline, expand, or repeal” the ones that are  “outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome.”

Definitely moving in the right direction….but the key is how to implement this requirement in a way that works. Unfortunately, the track record of agencies performing such mandatory retrospective analyses on their own rules is not dissimilar to the results of doctors conducting surgery on themselves.

I quote from a 2007 GAO report entitled  “Reexamining Regulations: Opportunities Exist to Improve Effectiveness and Transparency of Retrospective Reviews.”

Every president since President Carter has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations. For example, President Carter’s Executive Order 12044 required agencies to periodically review existing rules; one charge of President Reagan’s task force on regulatory relief was to recommend changes to existing regulations; President George H.W. Bush instructed agencies to identify existing regulations to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burden; and President Clinton, under section 5 of Executive Order 12866, required agencies to develop a program to “periodically review” existing significant regulations.17 In 2001, 2002, and 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush asked the public to suggest reforms of existing regulations.


For the mandatory reviews completed within our time frame, the most common result was a decision by the agency that no changes were needed to the regulation. There was a general consensus among officials across the agencies that the reviews were sometimes useful, even if no subsequent actions resulted, because they helped to confirm that existing regulations were working as intended.


Our limited review of agency summaries and reports on completed retrospective reviews revealed that agencies’ reviews more often attempted to assess the effectiveness of their implementation of the regulation rather than the effectiveness of the regulation in achieving its goal.


Agencies reported that the most critical barrier to their ability to conduct reviews was the difficulty in devoting the time and staff resources required for reviews while also carrying out other mission activities.


Most agencies’ officials reported that they lack the information and data needed to conduct reviews. Officials reported that a major data barrier to conducting effective reviews is the lack of baseline data for assessing regulations that they promulgated many years ago. Because of this lack of data, agencies are unable to accurately measure the progress or true effect of those regulations.


Agencies and nonfederal parties also considered PRA [Paperwork Reduction Act–MM]requirements to be a potential limiting factor in agencies’ ability to collect sufficient data to assess their regulations. For example, EPA officials reported that obtaining data was one of the biggest challenges the Office of Water faced in conducting its reviews of the effluent guideline and pretreatment standard under the Clean Water Act, and that as a result the Office of Water was hindered or unable to perform some analyses. According to the officials, while EPA has the authority to collect such data, the PRA requirements and associated information collection review approval process take more time to complete than the Office of Water’s mandated schedule for annual reviews of the effluent guideline and pretreatment standard allows.

This last one is especially fun, and shows up over and over again in the literature on retrospective regulatory review. Basically, the OMB has to review and approve data collection by the government, which means that collecting data to prove that a regulation doesn’t work requires more paperwork.


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