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Sharon Block, Union Ally, Named to White House Regulatory Post

Jan. 21, 2021, 8:55 PM

President Joe Biden has installed Obama-era labor official Sharon Block as interim political leader of the White House regulatory review office—an agency she’s recently said needs a worker-oriented overhaul—multiple sources briefed on the appointment told Bloomberg Law.

Block, in an April article published by The American Prospect, advocated for the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to undergo structural changes to expedite revocation of Trump administration rules that she deemed harmful to workers and progressive interests. Her opinion piece also called for OIRA to take on an expanded role to swiftly advance urgent regulations tied to pandemic recovery, rather than sometimes functioning as a bottleneck for such rules.

Block’s title is now OIRA associate administrator, four sources said, meaning she’s the top politically appointed official at the office until Biden nominates someone for administrator, who would then be subject to the Senate confirmation process. By tapping an experienced Democratic hand to steer the White House regulatory office on Wednesday, the new president is signaling a desire to avoid the potential for Senate confirmation delays to stall efforts to undo deregulatory, corporate-friendly regulations issued by the Trump administration.

The Biden administration has yet to formally announce Block’s appointment. Dominic Mancini, a career OIRA official, will serve as the office’s acting administrator, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget, which includes OIRA, declined to comment. Block, when reached by phone Wednesday, said she’s taken a job in the Biden administration and declined to address further questions.

The leader of the regulatory gatekeeper office is often considered one of the most powerful yet underappreciated roles in the federal government. OIRA is charged with coordinating with federal agencies to ensure their rules align with White House priorities. It also conducts legal and economic analyses of major regulations—weighing the costs to businesses against the benefits to the public—and provides a final sign-off before they can be released.

Under former President Barack Obama, Block served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board, counselor to then-Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and acting head of the Labor Department’s policy office. In the latter role, she was the department’s principal liaison with OIRA in coordinating DOL’s robust second-term rulemaking agenda.

Regulatory Freeze

As OIRA’s political lead, Block’s track record suggests she will be inclined to leverage the office to facilitate prompt release of new regulations on safety and labor issues.

“Sharon brings tremendous expertise, knowledge, and integrity to this important work,” said Thea Lee, president of the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute. “OIRA has the potential to be a roadblock or an essential partner in ensuring that appropriate regulatory policy fairly balances diverse viewpoints and interests. Sharon is the right candidate for this critical position at this moment in history.”

Hours after Biden’s swearing in Wednesday, Chief of Staff Ronald Klain signed a memo directing agencies to freeze implementation of all pending Trump-era rules and consider whether they’re still appropriate. At OIRA, Block will now play a leading role in guiding the White House’s economic and legal review of late-term Trump administration rules on environmental, labor, and health-care matters, which Biden’s Cabinet agencies will be moving to repeal.

Although she lacks the authority of a Senate-confirmed administrator, Block could have a chance to realize some of her ideas for changing OIRA, particularly connected to fast-tracking affirmative rules designed to assist workers suffering amid the pandemic. That includes a regulation Biden and unions have called on the Labor Department to issue that would require employers to protect workers from on-the-job Covid-19 infection.

‘Best Effort Possible’

“I believe that the next administration is going to have to come in laser-focused on protecting the health and jobs of American workers, who will be in dire physical and economic condition as a result of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic, not to mention regressive tax cuts and anti-worker attacks,” Block wrote in the April article.

“Properly staffed and directed, OIRA can make sure that every regulation makes the best effort possible to advance this urgent priority,” she added.

Most recently, Block was executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. In that role, she spearheaded multiple convenings of union leaders and academics called the Clean Slate for Worker Power Project, which culminated in a report calling for sweeping labor law reforms to benefit workers and organized labor.

“Sharon will be a superb leader for OIRA,” Benjamin Sachs, co-director of the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, said in an email. “She brings a profound understanding of the challenges facing American workers and a remarkable grasp of how public policy can be used to build a more equitable nation. Her selection makes me deeply optimistic about this Administration’s commitments and priorities.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com; Courtney Rozen in Washington at crozen@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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