OMB Watch: Obama Administration Stepping Up Enforcement of Labor Laws

In a report released Dec. 8, OMB Watch examined the regulatory enforcement actions of the Obama administration at its midterm point and revealed that executive branch agencies have stepped up enforcement of a number of important labor, consumer protection and environmental laws and regulations.

The report, “The Obama Approach to Public Protection: Enforcement,” is the second in a series of three publications on the Obama administration's approach to public protections and the federal regulatory process.

“For decades, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, small-government conservatives and special interests have been pushing for deregulation and the relaxation of regulatory enforcement, doing great damage to the nation,” said Matt Madia, a regulatory policy analyst at OMB Watch and lead author of the report. “The Obama administration has been making progress in restoring crucial public protections and more effectively enforcing the law.”

The report focuses on three areas: worker safety and health; consumer safety and health; and environmental enforcement. The main regulatory agencies covered include OSHA, MSHA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and EPA.

Key findings include:

  • OSHA inspectors have increased the number of citations for health and safety violations they uncover, and officials are shifting the agency’s attention toward high-risk sectors and repeat violators.
  • The FDA issued a greater number of warning letters to firms in violation of the agency’s rules during the first 18 month of the Obama administration as compared to the Bush administration, and the agency has been a leader in the administration’s efforts to crack down on misleading health claims promoted on product packaging.
  • Compared to the Bush era, EPA under Obama has moved more quickly to address violations of environmental laws while agency leaders focus on new enforcement strategies for clean water.

Despite these accomplishments, the report cautions that the administration will need to do more if it intends to truly improve the regulatory enforcement situation. For example, in times of fiscal austerity, enforcement programs often are among the hardest hit, and several agencies have seen their inspector corps shrink over the past few decades. Such resource constraints must be addressed and rectified if enforcement is to become more meaningful and effective.

The Obama administration also will have to contend with the challenge of anti-regulatory attacks from conservatives and corporate interests, according to OMB Watch. Madia said that the president and agencies charged with enforcing the nation’s environmental, public health, and worker safety laws will need to show great resolve in the face of such broadsides against our nation's public protections.

“As we saw in the cases of the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill that befouled the Gulf of Mexico and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, the absence of effective enforcement, sometimes entrenched after decades of negligence, can allow avoidable disasters to strike,” said Rick Melberth, director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch.

Melberth said the report shows the Obama administration seems to understand that fact and has made good progress. He added, however, that agencies still have a lot of work to do on the enforcement front.

The report is available as a PDF at

OMB Watch is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting government accountability, citizen participation in public policy decisions and the use of fiscal and regulatory policy to serve the public interest.

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