The deregulators

The American people are by now more than aware that the President's overall economic recovery strategy is multifold; that is, based on slashing taxes and cutting federal spending while exerting pressure on the Federal Reserve Board to slow the rate of increase in the nation's money supply. What may be overlooked by many persons is the fourth element in this overall policy -- regulatory reform.

Yet such oversight by the American public would be both unfortunate and unwise. Slashing federal red tape has long been the grist of endless business-group conferences and economic studies usually relegated to the financial pages of the nation's press. But the administration's antiregulatory efforts may well dramatically reshape the entire range of US environmental, safety, and health laws enacted over several decades and taken for granted by most citizens.

The effect of the deregulations, in fact, may be as historically far-reaching as the new tax and budget laws themselves. The emphasis on deregulation, moreover, combined with a new breed of agency officials more favorably disposed towards the nation's business community, has already sharply changed attitudes about the federal government's role in overseeing commerce.

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There is little question that the federal government over the past several decades has gone so far in its regulatory zeal as to stultify and encumber with paperwork large segments of business enterprise. The Carter administration itself recognized this and with Congress as a partner led the way in the deregulation of the airline, railroad, and trucking industries.

What is unique about the deregulatory process underway in the Reagan administration, however, is its near totality. Not just a selected industry here or there is to be "set free" from costly federal interference but -- and this is the rub -- mostm industries. But not all industries which may have special ties to the administration. More about that will be noted below.

The administration is to be commended for seeking to eliminate unnecessary red tape. Just to cite two examples, the Department of Education has already slashed regulations subjecting schools to loss of federal funds if dress codes differentiate between girls and boys; and the Department of Energy has dropped numerous paperwork forms for oil companies. This is the type of commonsense reform that the American people should welcome and encourage.

But there is a second type of "reform" that the public and lawmakers should be much more cautious about. Do they really want to roll back years of health, civil rights, safety an environmental guidelines in the name of deregulation? Many of these rules were purposely designed to provide greater equity -- and safety -- for society as a whole. Involved, for example, are guidelines (now under review by the administration) involving equal pay for men and women; sexual harassment; flammability of children's clothes; the amount of lead in gasoline; building designs pertaining to the handicapped; as well as more highly publicized issues such as the decision to ease antipollution standards under the Clean Air Act.

At the same time there is evidence that the administration is not moving ahead in some areas where deregulation might be expected -- or is by law supposed to go forward. Take trucking. The Interstate Commerce Commission, under a new chairman appointed by the administration, appears to be moving to halt trucking-industry deregulation. What's going on here? Is any slowdown related to the fact that the powerful Teamsters union, which backed Mr. Reagan, is opposed to deregulation, as are some trucking firms?

Finally, it should be noted, there is legislation now before Congress that would, if enacted, give the president broad power to curb the rulemaking powers of the various federal regulatory agencies. Critics say that one result would be to end the independence of such agencies. Congress should ensure that the regulatory bodies are free to perform their mandated functions.

The administration is on target in seeking to cut unnecessary, counterproductive, and costly regulations. At the same time the administration and Congress have the obligation to ensure that minimal standards providing for the public health, safety, and basic civil rights of all citizens are not eroded in the name of deregulation. The American people will expect nothing less.

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