By Chris Adams

What happens in Congress makes the front pages. What happens deep in the bowels of the federal government only makes the Federal Register. But sometimes, it’s equally as important.

In sessions with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, two experts on federal regulations described the process by which departments and agencies change their policies and procedures – often with a major impact on the public.

Rules can be mammoth and groundbreaking, such as the Clean Power Plan that President Barack Obama’s administration proposed to combat climate change and President Donald Trump’s decided to pull back.

The tug of war between administrations is part of the rule-making process, according to Susan Dudley of the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and Lisa Heinzerling of the Georgetown University Law Center. Dudley worked in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the President George W. Bush White House; Heinzerling worked in the Office of Policy in the Obama-era U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dudley detailed the massive growth in pages in the Federal Register going back decades and including the introduction of new federal agencies. Since the start of the Trump administration, there’s been a big drop in regulations, part of the president’s deregulatory agenda and his mandate to cut two rules for each new one put in place.

Heinzerling led fellows through the constitutional underpinnings of the regulatory system, describing the authority the president possesses. And she described the role of independent agencies that the president doesn’t directly control.

She also described the differences among the types of regulatory actions, whether rules, adjudications or guidance documents. An example of a rule would be the Clean Power Plan; an adjudication would be the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, or a Social Security benefits proceeding. They all are legally binding, but carry different requirements.

Guidance documents are just as they sound – “guidance,” without the same legal standing.

Rules go through a proposal phase, followed by public comment and then a finalized version. Reporters can track the rules – and the public comments offered in response to them – at agency websites or regulations.gov.