Can Reagan tame the government rulemakers?

The President said he had come to Washington to tame the bureaucratic tiger. One thing he promised was regulatory reform, so he signed an executive order he said would "make federal regulations clearer, less burdensome, and more cost effective."

President Reagan? No. President Carter.

The federal government issued 5,000 new regulations during Mr. Carter's four years in the White House. Will President Reagan and his Task Force on Regulatory Relief be able to check the flow? How will they stalk and lasso Washington's runaway rulemakers?

Mr. Carter also had a team of regulation tamers -- the Regulatory Analysis Review Group (RARG). But it was charged more with giving general advice than carrying out specific tasks.

President Reagan's task force, created by one of his first executive orders, has been assigned more concrete duties.

* It must develop ways to apply cost-benefit analysis to proposed regulations.

* Using these guidelines, it must review "regulatory impact analyses" submitted by agencies proposing major new regulations.

* It must also oversee a cost-benefit review of rules currently in effect.

The task force, of which Vice-President George Bush is chairman, is directed by James C. Miller III, former codirector of the American Enterprise Institute Center for the Study of Government Regulation.

In plain language, it intends to determine how much clean air, clean water, and worker safety are worth, say observers here -- an ethical-financial judgment that might curl the hair of any Supreme Court justice.

"We're kidding ourselves if we think government can develop guidelines in this area," says one congressional source. "I don't envy their task."

Government officials counter that we're paying too much for too little -- that nothing in life can be made risk-free and that enormously expensive smokestack scrubbers, for instance, don't clean enough to be worth the cost.

Critics say "cost/benefit analysis" really means "cost analysis."

"In the cost/benefit analysis debate, benefits are forgotten," says Dave Cohen, president of Common Cause. "There's a general throwing up of hands and refusal to make judgments about benefits."

Regulation experts admit that cost/benefit analysis may be a basically impossible task, like trying to figure out what to charge for admission to a sunset.

But they say the government should do less command and control regulating and set more performance standards.

A command and control regulation would require all coal burning power plants to install smokestack scrubbers.A performance rule would require that the air over coal plants be cleaner -- but it wouldn't spell out how that goal should be achieved.

"The point is to get the job done," says Ronald Penoyer of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University. "We all want cleaner air. But don't tell an individual howm to do it. Just say, 'Please do it.'"

The EPA, for instance, is now using such an approach in enforcing the Clean Air Act -- a difference one EPA official calls "a big sea-change in attitude towardsregulation."

Regulation thus becomes less of a decree from on high and more of a mutual decision. A bill recently reintroduced in Congress would extend this less-confrontational attitude to the formation of new rules.

The Regulatory Negotiation Act of 1981, introduced in the House by Rep. Donald Pease (a Senate companion bill will be filed by Sen. Carl Levin in the next few weeks) would bring industry and public interest groups together to thrash out proposed regulations before they became law.

The bill authorizes funding of a pilot program to form 10 regulatory negotiation commissions. These commissions, formed voluntarily by businesses and organizations interested in the rules, would "attempt, through negotiations, to reach a consensus agreement on what regulatory policy should be in their area of concern."

Their findings would be forwarded to the appropriate agencies and Congress for comment. Though the government would be under no obligation to adopt the proposed regulations, it would be required to submit a written response in 60 days.

Backers of the bill says it's a more workable solution than Reagan's ambitious attempt at quantifying the cost of regulations. They say members of the commissions would have an intuitive feeling for cost-benefit analysis that no government guidelines could supplant.

Hearings on the Regulatory Negotiation Act ar e currently scheduled to begin May 7.

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