WASHINGTON — THE White House has taken a page out of Ronald Reagan's antigovernment playbook in its assault on the burdens of federal regulation.
But unlike former President Reagan, President Bush is waging a high-visibility battle against his own legacy of regulatory growth.
In less than two weeks, the three-month moratorium President Bush decreed on the creating of new federal regulations will end. Led largely by Vice President Dan Quayle, the White House is seeking to convert this pause in rule-writing into an ongoing war.
The moratorium has already been used to review and revise inefficient regulations throughout the federal agencies. Mr. Quayle offers very rough estimates that revised regulations so far have saved the economy $10 billion to $20 billion annually.
"This war on unnecessary regulation will not end," he said recently in a meeting with reporters.
Yet the Bush administration is fighting its own clear trend toward regulatory growth.
The cost of complying with regulations on the private economy is nearing the historic peak set in the late 1970s, according to an economist widely cited on the subject.
And the part of the federal budget for monitoring and enforcing regulation is larger than ever before in history, according to the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University.
The trend runs from the 55 major new regulations required under the Clean Air Act to small-business owners complaining about more-frequent visits from Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration inspectors.
Mr. Quayle admitted that for the first year to year and a half of the Bush administration, "we were probably a little lax" in fighting regulation. "We thought it had been taken care of" during the antiregulation battles of the Reagan years, he said.
In 1981, the Reagan administration held a moratorium similar to the one now underway. It did not make a significant impact on regulation, says Thomas Hopkins, an economist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who studies the costs of regulation.
Regulation was declining through the early 1980s, but largely because of laws passed under President Carter to deregulate major industries - transportation, communications, and energy. One the most visible examples was airline deregulation.
Although the Reagan administration showed little interest in enforcing or administering regulations, it did little to slow the major growth area for new federal rules, the environment.
The whole category of what economists call social regulation has been given a further boost by the Bush administration. Mr. Bush endorsed sweeping new laws concerning clean air, the rights of disabled people, and civil rights for women and minorities that require volumes of regulations to enforce.
In fact, environmentalists charge that the White House is undermining its own new law with its attack on regulation.
Staff members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee cite 35 legal deadlines that the administration has missed already for required clean-air regulations. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the committee's health and environment subcommittee, is now suing the administration over the matter.
In the White House, the larger issue is a battle to control the bureaucracy in the federal agencies that issue regulations. The agencies and departments are part of the executive branch, but the presidential appointees who run the agencies are but a handful at the top and are routinely survived by an army of career professionals below.
"This is a turf battle that is not unprecedented," observed Quayle. "Committee chairmen don't like it. [Congressional] staff really [don't] like it.... We want the agencies to be more responsive to us and less to the Hill."
White House staff members have been pushing each agency to come up with regulations that can be scrapped or streamlined. Quayle has even been keeping score cards by agency.
One rule change, for example, reduced a nitrogen-oxide emission standard for power plants by nearly half and allows for some remodeling of plants without having to update to the new standards at all.
According to a tentative estimate from Quayle's staff, this rule change will save from $1 billion to $3 billion a year.
A House staff member responds: "You only realize those savings if you give up on those clean-air goals."
Other deregulation measures range from speeding the approval process for bringing new drugs to market, simplifying the payroll-tax system for small businesses, and allowing greater use of cheaper, less-skilled construction helpers on federal-contract jobs to requiring licensed appraisals less often in real-estate lending.
As measured by pages in the Federal Register, the bible of rulemaking, regulatory activity has dropped by nearly half since the beginning of the moratorium.