Washington — American business has long complained of being buried under a regulatory mountain, with each new government rule adding a shovelful of forms or other costly burdens to the pile. President Reagan has promised relief, and when Congress comes back from vacation it will consider bills aimed at easing the load.
Legislative efforts aimed at overhauling Washington's regulation-producing machinery would require analysis of proposed rules for cost vs. benefits; allow the shoulders; and subject all major rules to a 10-year performance checkup.
After years of bombardment by new rules, business groups say they can almost feel some of the paper work being lifted from their shoulders.
"All segments of the business community are interested enough to mount a massive grass-roots effort" to ensure passage of a regulatory reform bill, says M. Kendall Fleeharty, director of the Regulatory Action Center at the US Chamber of Commerce.
But critics fear the public good may get trampled during the rush to unleash business.
"It's a hyprocritical approach to regulatory reform," says Nancy Drabble, acting director of the Ralph Nader group Congress Watch. "there will be cost-benefit analysis for new rules, but deregulation moves don't get the same scrutiny."
At issue are two bills -- S 1080 and HR 746 -- that would solidify and expand regulatory reforms President Reagan has already made.
On Feb. 17 Mr. Reagan issued an executive order requiring agencies to analyze the costs and benefits of proposed rules and to pick the least expensive way of getting the required protection.
But business fears that a future, less benign president could undo the executive order with a stroke of the presidential pen. If Congress passes regulatory reform, however, the law will be set in a stone no administration can eliminate.
So, in the native language of Washington, trade groups like the Business Roundtable have worked hard to "massage" the bills through Congress. S 1080 is the furthest along on the tough march to enactment.
* Agencies would be required to submit a cost-benefit analysis of proposed major rules. A "major" rule would be one having a $100 million effect on the economy. In addition, the agency can dub a rule "major" if it believes the rule would have "significant adverse effects on competition," or would cause "a substantial increase in costs or prices." A president could do the same thing -- though he would have a "major" quota of 75 rules a year.
* Judicial oversight of the regulatory process would be strengthened. Outside parties could sue if they suspected a rule not designated "major" met the $100 million test. But the courts couldn't rule on the other, more subjective standards.
The judicial provisions "to a large extent codify what the courts do now," says a congressional counsel involved with the bill.
* All major rules would be reviewed after 10 years, to see if benefits had actually outweighed costs.
The procedures for cost-benefit analysis would be set by the executive branch -- a crucial power which some say smacks of a new "imperial presidency," that is , an overpowerful executive.
"It would give OMB [the White House Budget Office] unprecedented power to supervise the regulatory process," says Ms. Drabble of Congress Watch.
But business sources point out that there are many different agencies, administering many different sets of rules. They contend that OMB would only be able to draw up broad guidelines, with each agency tailoring the results to fit specific needs.
No one seems quite sure how benefits and costs might be measured. The process involves tricky value judgments, like determining the worth of clean air , clean water, and worker safety -- decisions that might curl the hair of any Supreme Court justice.
"It's difficult to calculate the costs," Mr. Fleeharty says. "It may be more difficult to calculate the benefits."
The President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief is wrestling with this problem. Capitol Hill sources say the Task Force is having some trouble forming cost-benefit standards.
And no one is quite sure how regulatory reform legislation fits in with the balance of governmental power.
"The administration argues that whatever the legislation does provides a baseline," a congressional counsel says. "Then the President has the power to go beyond that. Other people might say it puts restrictions on what the President can do."
S 1080 has already negotiated the Judiciary Committee. Now in the Committee on Governmental Affairs, it must be reported to the full Senate by Sept. 18.
"It'll probably pass without too much trouble," a congressional staff members says.
But the bill's backers are worried that some senators will spring out of their chairs, waving proposed amendments, when S 1080 hits the floor. This is a time-honored technique which often hobbles a bill's progress. For instance, the bill will probably draw at least one, and perhaps two, amendments proposing a congressional veto over new regulations.
The House bill started out with milder provisions. But Republicans bent on regulatory reform were able to shake the bill around and stiffen it up -- to the dismay of Rep. George Danielson (D) of Georgia, its sponsor. More hearings are scheduled for the bill on Sept. 10, but some business people are worried.
"We're a little bit distracted by the footdragging going on in the House," says Robert Ragland, director of the National Association of Manufacturers' Regulatory Reform Committee.