The surge in rule-making has resulted from an unusual confluence of factors, from repeated outbreaks of food-borne illnesses to workplace disasters. Some industry groups, wanting foreign competitors to adhere to the same standards they must meet, have backed new federal mandates. The push for some of the measures began at the end of the Bush administration, a tacit acknowledgment that its deregulatory agenda had gone too far.
Still, the new aggressiveness reflects the new cops on the beat, and the contrast with the Bush administration is an intentionally sharp one. While the Bush administration mostly favored voluntary compliance by industry, senior Obama administration officials argue that carefully crafted regulation can be a positive force.
“We start from the perspective that we all want a cleaner environment, longer lives, improved safety,” said Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major regulations. “Smart regulation can make people’s lives better off.”
But complaints from industry leaders are intensifying. Manufacturers, home builders, toymakers and others say that Washington has been overzealous about imposing new requirements, and they warn of serious consequences for businesses and consumers.
“I am all for clean water, but this really isn’t helping,” said Bobby Bowling IV, president of the Tropicana Building Corporation in El Paso, who objects to rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency last year requiring larger construction sites to prevent turbid storm-water runoff. “All this is one more obstacle to development,” Mr. Bowling said.
The National Association of Manufacturers made a similar complaint about the cost of many of the new proposed mandates. “Dollars spent on compliance with cumbersome regulations are dollars not spent on hiring new employees,” said Erin Streeter, a spokeswoman for the group.
Obama administration officials reject the criticism, saying that the benefits associated with the dozens of major rules adopted between President Obama’s inauguration and the end of 2009 outweigh the costs by an estimated $3.1 billion, a savings they assert is greater than that attributed to new regulations in the first years of the Clinton and Bush administrations.
They arrived at that figure by factoring in upfront costs — like the price of stronger brake systems being mandated in new tractor-trailers — with the estimated long-term savings — like reduced property damage and an estimated 227 fewer highway deaths each year.
“I don’t want to put anyone out of business,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who was appointed by Mr. Obama. “But if anything will help the marketplace, it is to make sure that people have confidence in the products that they buy.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is perhaps the most aggressive advocate of the new regulatory philosophy in Washington. It has moved quickly to reverse or strengthen Bush administration policies on power plant pollution, lead paint and toxic chemical discharges.
Last month, along with the Transportation Department, the agency mandated that automakers significantly cut greenhouse-gas emissions while increasing fuel economy standards, an issue the Bush administration had put on hold, citing the industry’s weakened financial condition. The car companies pronounced themselves happy with the result because it eliminated the possibility of even stricter regulation by California and about a dozen other states.
The agency’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, has made clear that she would prefer to have Congress tackle climate change through broad legislation in what would be one of the largest regulatory actions in American history. But if Congress fails to pass a law, she has already started the process of mandating standards on her own.
The shift is also evident at major agencies charged with policing worker safety, health and consumer products. Many of the rules those agencies have adopted or are now pushing to impose — including a requirement that farmers refrigerate eggs and kill rodents to combat salmonella contamination on eggshells, which sickens 79,000 people a year — languished during previous administrations.
Now, a newly muscular Food and Drug Administration will have more authority, money and staff for greater scrutiny of products. Since bottoming out at 1,309 inspectors in the 2007 fiscal year, the agency now has 1,800 inspectors with 150 more on the way. Inspections rose 5 percent in 2009 after years of declines and are expected to increase steadily in coming years.