WASHINGTON – Oil spill prevention requirements will no longer apply to spilled milk. Gasoline pumps wouldn't need devices for trapping vapor pollutants, and there would be fewer bureaucratic hurdles for doctors who want to dispense medical advice to a distant patient.
These were among hundreds of existing regulations that the Obama administration said Thursday it wants to revamp or eliminate in a government-wide effort to ease burdens on business. Overall, the drive would save hundreds of millions of dollars annually for companies, governments and individuals and eliminate millions of hours of paperwork while maintaining health and safety protections for Americans, White House officials said.
"The president believes we need to be very careful to make sure small businesses have room to grow," said Cass Sunstein, President Barack Obama's regulatory chief, who described the plans in a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The effort was described in hundreds of pages posted online by 30 agencies and departments, at points vague or thick with legalistic references to sections of regulatory codes. The scope was vast — the Defense Department said it is reviewing limitations on former members of the military wearing uniforms, the Transportation Department described a review of consumer protection guidelines for air travelers, the Food and Drug Administration saying it is revising food labeling rules.
Republicans in Congress have also announced plans to reduce federal regulations. House leaders pledged Thursday that they would approve legislation to require congressional approval of any government rule that "will have a significant impact on the economy." And Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who chairs a House investigative subcommittee, said he has summoned Sunstein to testify to his panel next week to review the administration's proposed changes.
There was little immediate outside criticism of the specific changes the White House was proposing, coupled with little expectation among groups, right or left, that the effort would have a dramatic impact.
Business organizations said they were less concerned with existing rules than with new, proposed regulations, like Environmental Protection Agency plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"We have often already priced in existing regulations and sometimes already made the capital investments to comply," said Rosario Palmieri, vice president for regulatory policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. "The new, costly burdens often have greater impact and are a greater threat to job creation and competiveness."
The changes described Thursday would not affect the EPA's high-profile greenhouse gas effort.
On the other side, consumer and liberal groups worried that the administration was tilting away from the more important task of creating jobs and protecting the environment. While the effort described Thursday includes proposed strengthening of some regulations — like a possible plan to require rear cameras on trash trucks — the drive is focused on "cost reduction and burden reduction," Sunstein said.
"This is the sort of 'Government is bad, industry is good' rhetoric you'd expect to see out of industry lobbyists or right-wing think tanks," said Amy Sinden, a scholar with the liberal Center for Progressive Reform. "It's obviously a political move to the center" for Obama, she said.
While the plan seemed reasonable, agencies will need to devote significant energy to review the numerous regulations, said Gary Bass, executive director of the non-profit OMB Watch, which monitors the Office of Management and Budget, the White House arm that oversees regulations.
"In an era of tight resources, the more you look back means the less you can look forward," Bass said, referring to the constraints federal deficits put on agency budgets.
The changes — some already finalized but mostly proposals that will take about three months to complete — are a follow-up to an executive order Obama issued in January aimed at jettisoning ineffective or burdensome rules. The effort was started shortly after Republicans captured House control in the 2010 elections pledging to shrink government and kill regulatory burdens on business, and with jobs and the economy at the forefront of voters' minds.
With the 2012 campaign rapidly coloring events in Washington and the economy is still struggling to create jobs, Obama has been trying to improve his relationships with the business world and immunize himself against GOP accusations that administration initiatives like last year's health care and financial regulation overhauls have cost jobs. At the same time, Obama wants to avoid alienating his liberal Democratic base.
"We have an extraordinary record of protecting the public against risks to safety, health and the environment," Sunstein said.
In some instances on Thursday, agencies went out of their way to highlight their responsiveness to industry.
The Department of Energy has water conservation rules for showerheads but said it had agreed to let manufacturers continue selling some non-compliant showerheads for two additional years to give companies time to adjust their products. The department cited industry sources as saying that grace period would mean $400 million to manufacturers.
In one rule change that's already taken effect, EPA recently tightened oil spill prevention regulations it said were so broadly written that dairy farmers had to follow the requirements for milk spills. The change will save dairy farmers $140 million a year, the administration said.
Officials said devices trapping vapors at gasoline pumps were unneeded because anti-pollution technology on today's vehicles makes the vapor traps "redundant." EPA estimates savings of $67 million a year once that requirement is eased.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it wants to help serve more rural patients by letting doctors credentialed at one hospital use telemedicine — interacting with a patient over interactive video devices — even if they are not credentialed at the hospital where the patient is.
Other changes proposed Thursday include:
— Health and Human services is studying whether to modernize a seven-year-old rule requiring bar codes on some pharmaceuticals, an effort aimed at preventing patients from betting the wrong medications. The agency also wants to reduce the amount of information doctors and hospitals must file to medical databases;
— The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will reduce over 1.9 million hours a year of reporting requirements for employers, saving over $40 million. And the agency will also make hazard labels on some products match labels used by other countries for an annual saving of $585 million.
— The Transportation Department would apply certain railroad safety equipment rules "only where they are actually needed," saving up to $1 billion over 20 years.
— Treasury will drop references in some of its rules to Yugoslavia, a nation that broke into several countries in the 1990s.
Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.