Here are three things the
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
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, compared to 127 on the old one —but it's a big improvement.
FOR THE RECORD:
Obama: In some editions,
' April 28 column urged President Obama to fill the vacancy left when Cass Sunstein stepped down as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Last week, the president nominated Howard Shelanski, an economist at the
, to head that office. The Senate has not yet acted on the nomination. —
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
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
"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
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
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
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% of Americans said they had a favorable view of the federal government, down from 42% 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 healthcare 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,
And when you've done all that, it's time to make sure the American public knows about it.