Cass Sunstein on making government simpler, not smaller

Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-Calif.) folder is covered with notes during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol March 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Image of Simpler: The Future of Government
Author: Cass R. Sunstein
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages

Whenever a federal agency sets new standards, say about the environment, or the financial industry, there's an office inside the White House that has to put the final seal of approval on those regulations. It's called OIRA (pronounced, "Oh, Ira") -- the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Up until last year, Cass Sunstein ran that office for President Obama. And he's got a new book about making government, and its rules, work more elegantly. It's called "Simpler".

"Think of a large company which is not going to get smaller. It shouldn't. It should grow. But it can get simpler. It can make the experience for its own employees and for its customers easier," Sunstein says. "My suggestion is that governments can serve their citizens a lot better if they get simpler." 

The current regulatory system in the United States is undoubtedly complicated, with state and local agencies issuing their own rules. That's in addition to the sometimes conflicting policies coming out of multiple federal agencies. At Sunstein's former post, OIRA, the focus is on negotiating and solving those potential conflicts.

That can lead to criticism that the office is a convenient place for Presidents to allow inconvenient rules to wither away. Sunstein doesn't agree with that characterization.

"Recent Presidents, starting actually with Reagan, have found it useful to have an office where there's an administration-wide examination of whether regulations make sense," he says.

However, he acknowledges that process can prevent a regulation from being enforced.

"It might happen sometimes that the internal scrutiny means the rule doesn't come out. And that means there isn't sufficently wide administration support for [the rule]".

Lest these rules sound like dull stuff, Sunstein reminds us how we're touched in everyday life by regulation.

"If you think about whether the economy is booming or not, or whether the air is clean or not, or whether food is safe or not, those are all core issues that regulation is engaged with," Sunstein says. "I hope there's nothing dry about that." 

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Simpler: The Future of Government
Author: Cass R. Sunstein
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages

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