How the Biden Administration Is Modernizing the Regulatory Process

By Peggy Ramin

Recently, the Biden administration announced actions to modernize the federal rulemaking process. These are much-needed updates that will lead to improvements in the way the government makes policies that respond to the needs and realities of people in this country. But what do these seemingly wonky developments really mean for the communities and issues we care about?

The regulatory process has profound impacts on our lives — from the quality of the air we breathe, to our access to health care, to job conditions and protections, to data and technology privacy, and to advancements in equity and civil and human rights, to name just some of its implications. As advocates, part of our work is to ensure that government regulations reflect the lived experiences of the communities we represent. As a result, advocates often look for and take advantage of opportunities to participate in the regulatory process by weighing in directly with the government as it develops and proposes new regulations. However, the process has historically been difficult for the public to access, navigate, and contribute to in a truly meaningful and inclusive way. And the costs and benefits that certain regulations may impose on communities of color, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ people, Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals, older adults and children, and other systemically marginalized groups have often been ignored or not properly and inclusively considered.

On President Biden’s first day in office, he issued a memorandum on “Modernizing Regulatory Review.” The memo directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), home of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), to provide concrete recommendations for how the regulatory review process can be more accessible and better promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental protection, human dignity, equity, and other issues that will affect generations to come.

To further these goals, the Biden administration announced actions on April 6, 2023 to modernize the federal regulatory process. President Biden put forth an executive order that takes new steps to make the process of regulatory review more inclusive and effective. The administration’s actions aim to improve public participation in the regulatory process, which can often feel opaque or confusing, and to make OIRA’s engagement with the public more inclusive.

Along with the executive order, OIRA released proposed revisions to “Circular A-4.” Circular A-4 is a document that guides federal agencies on how to assess the potential positive and negative effects of proposed and existing regulations. The revisions are meant to ensure that the regulatory review process promotes policies that are reflective of scientific and economic developments, accounts for regulatory benefits that are difficult to quantify, and avoids harmful anti-regulatory or deregulatory effects. Significantly, OIRA’s proposed revisions to Circular A-4 also take into account the “distributional consequences of regulations” — in other words, recognizing that regulations may have different impacts on different communities, including those that have been historically disregarded or subjected to discrimination.

The goal of these revisions to Circular A-4 are to identify reforms that promote a more transparent and inclusive interagency process. Fully implemented, these reforms have the potential to produce considerable improvements to the federal regulatory process, making it more effective and inclusive, improving the quality of agency analysis, and bettering the lives of people in our communities.

Along with proposed revisions to Circular A-4, the administration is also seeking comment on its proposed revisions to Circular A-94. Circular A-94 updates a document that is similar to A-4 — but where A-4 focuses on federal agency rulemaking, A-94 applies to federal government spending, like grant programs. The proposed changes to both of these documents are long-needed updates that will help to ensure that the government continues to work effectively for all of us.

The effort to modernize the regulatory process has implications for nearly every stakeholder affected by federal policy. The executive order and proposed revisions to Circular A-4 and Circular A-94 represent important steps the administration is taking to address inequities and align the regulatory process with our values. To that end, OIRA is soliciting public comment on the proposals required by the memorandum. The agency is seeking public comment for 60 days on the proposed A-4, A-94, and on the guidance implementing the executive order.

The comment period is an important opportunity for communities to weigh in on how the government can be more inclusive and responsive through the regulatory process, with the ultimate objective of improving the lives of all people. As we continue to work toward the goal of a more open and just society — an America as good as its ideals — we have a responsibility to ensure that all communities have the opportunity to participate in the regulatory process in a meaningful, inclusive way.

Peggy Ramin is the policy counsel for health/poverty at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.