New Direction for Regulatory Policy Shop: Batkins

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By Cheryl Bolen

April 22 — Fresh out of law school during the economic downturn, Sam Batkins got an offer he couldn't refuse: a full-time job.

He was hired as director of regulatory policy at the American Action Forum. The group was brand new—founded in February 2010—and regulatory policy is “esoteric,” he said.

But six years later, Batkins, who remains in the post, tells Bloomberg BNA that the opportunities are ripe for new areas of research into this little-understood field.

The forum is led by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. The forum states that it is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that aims to educate the public about the complex policy choices that face the country.

The forum, which has a center-right political philosophy, is affiliated with the American Action Network, which engages in direct legislative advocacy in support of the policy proposals discussed by the forum.

Daily Data Collection

In thinking about how to set up his new job, Batkins said that the one idea he took from the National Taxpayers Union, a former employer, was that more data and a bigger picture are always better.

His first task was to go through the Federal Register and examine every single proposed and final regulation, and start tracking all of them, something he still does to this day.

“It takes about an hour every day to narrow down this massive universe of regulation and focus it to a point that we hope can be easily digestible to the public,” he said.

For example, a search of the Affordable Care Act in the Federal Register would result in 14,000 different hits, and far more on Google, Batkins said. But the link to the act on the AAF website comes up with just the 111 actual regulations that have some sort of quantified cost, benefit or paperwork figure associated with them, Batkins said.

Looking to the Future

Batkins said back-filling the AAF database is a big goal. Also, getting a robust retrospective review component is important, he said.

In addition, the group is only a year or two out from determining the effect of some of the initial regulations issued during the first part of the Obama administration, Batkins said.

He said he would like to look back and study the effects of the first Dodd-Frank and Affordable Care Act rules.

“And I would like those to be more than just flashes in the dark in terms of our overall knowledge, and more frequent going forward,” he said.

Claims Versus Reality

Batkins said he is far more focused now on what actually happened with existing regulations.

The AAF has a great data team that can go back and examine a lot of the claims that were made and compare them to reality, he said.

For example, the staff can use complex regression analysis to determine what effect a particular rule did or didn’t have on employment and wages, Batkins said.

It is a difficult task, but one that could inform policymakers on both sides of the aisle, because everyone gets sick of agency projections versus industry projections and fighting those out in the public sphere, Batkins said.

“I think policymakers on both sides want to know what the actual effects of the rule are, as opposed to just projections,” he said.

Election-Year Activity

His appreciation for retrospective analysis, however, doesn't distract Batkins from monitoring new rulemakings.

So far, the last year of the Obama administration hasn't seen an extraordinarily high number of rulemakings compared to other presidential-election years, Batkins said. However, the number of significant regulations discharged from the White House is higher than in any other presidential-election year since at least 1996, he said. There has been a lot of activity just in the last few weeks, with a major rule on inversions, the fiduciary rule and a major rule on silica.

Whether regulatory activity will increase next year will likely depend on the outcome of the election, Batkins said. If a Democrat wins, a “mad rush” of rulemakings is unlikely, whereas a Republican victory portends a lot of action, Batkins predicted.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com