Cass Sunstein resigns

On this sleepy Saturday in August we are having what is, by all appearances, a classic slow news weekend. But one news story of note is Cass Sunstein’s resignation as White House overseer of regulation. No reason was given for his departure.

Sunstein’s tenure was controversial. Labor and consumer activists and liberals in general were not exactly the biggest fans of the guy. Dan Froomkin explained why in this excellent profile from last year. The problem is with Sunstein’s basic ideological orientation: he accepts the neo-liberal, corporate-friendly frame that regulations tend to be too burdensome, and should be avoided or scrapped whenever possible. To that end, his top priority, upon assuming his job as regulatory czar, was to conduct an in-depth review of existing regulations, with an eye toward trashing the ones that are deemed to be too costly to business.

Coming at a time when radically deregulated financial markets pretty much crashed the entire global economy, plus, as Froomkin noted, the BP oil spill, the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, and “a bevy of food- and toy-related health scares and other dangers,” this seemed like a grotesquely misplaced priority.

As Froomkin points out in his article about Sunstein’s resignation, in office, the man did seem, for the most part, to stick to his Republican lite, anti-regulatory agenda. He is credited with scrapping or delaying “critically important regulations proposed by Obama’s cabinet agencies, including those intended to improve air quality, limit exposure to silica, and protect minors from dangerous agricultural work.” In addition, he implemented other dubious measures, “such as one that allows many poultry plants to speed up processing lines by eliminating federal inspectors.”

Predictably, this still wasn’t enough to make Sunstein’s critics on the right happy. However, according to Froomkin, it did earn him a semi-regular slot on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and at least some of the wingnuts speak warmly of him. For example, alleged car thief, arsonist, and gun-wielding punk Rep. Darrell Issa is on record as a fan:

Cass Sunstein appeared to recognize the harm overly burdensome regulations inflict on economic growth and job creation — although he was not able to stop the tsunami of regulations enacted by the Obama administration.

You can definitely count me as an un-fan, though.

I should point out that I have something of a personal connection with Sunstein. When I was a graduate student in public policy, I took his course in labor and employment law. I have nothing but praise for Sunstein as a teacher. He was a clear, engaging, and cogent lecturer, and also was one of the those exemplary individuals who will respond to your email questions within minutes. I was especially impressed by the latter trait, particularly since he was a hyper-busy superstar professor. I have had professors who were more or less completely unknown who would just ignore student emails. My adviser, for instance, who was hardly a household name, was someone whom I literally had to stalk (really — I’d get hold of his schedule for the quarter and hang out by the doorway after class to buttonhole him!). Otherwise I could never get in touch with him, because he would never respond to emails and phone calls (he was notorious for doing this with everybody).

So yes, I appreciated not only Sunstein’s lectures, which could be quite dazzling on occasion (and were not tainted by much ideological bias, so far as I could see), but also his generosity in making himself available to students.

But I do remember one moment that made me seriously call his judgment into question. He was announcing a campus event sponsored by the Federalist Society, and not only mentioned the fact that that organization was doing the sponsoring, but totally went out of his way to praise them and kiss up to them, in the most sycophantic way possible. I think he might even have explicitly denied that they had an ideological agenda! — or at least came close to doing so. I almost lost my lunch, and at that moment, sadly, I lost respect for Professor Sunstein. He is way too smart a man to not understand exactly what the Federalist Society is up to. So I had to conclude that either: a) he agrees with their extremist political agenda, or b) he doesn’t agree with it, but is possessed of “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself,” and that, to satisfy that ambition, he is over-eager to smarmily placate power — even the nastiest elements of it.

I vote for b), personally.

Finally, I will close with the concluding paragraph of the Froomkin piece, which manages to smuggle in a delightfully rude and disrespectful scatological metaphor. Bravo, Mr. Froomkin!

But some critics expect little change. “While Sunstein’s office served as the health and safety sphincter for the federal government, he was not running his own agenda,” said Ruch. “He was merely taking direction from a finger-in-the-wind White House.”

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee