The Push for Pennywise EPA Laws
MUCH of the debate over regulatory reform comes down to two provocative questions:Skip to next paragraph
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''How much is a single life worth?''
''Is $6,000 a year too much for each American household to pay for government regulation?''
These represent the human side of eye-glazing discussions over ''risk assessment'' and ''cost-benefit ratios'' as applied mainly to laws dealing with environmental health and safety. What they amount to is deciding, for example, how much of a particular toxic substance -- and the cost of regulating it -- society can tolerate.
The House of Representatives has passed bills ordering bureaucrats to weigh relative risks and figure economic costs before imposing new government regulations. The Senate is considering a range of measures -- some palatable to the Clinton administration, others that likely would be vetoed.
''Risk assessment, cost-benefit analysis, [scientific] peer review, and regulatory review are among the most important tools we have for protecting the environment,'' Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week. ''But the issue is how best to use these tools in making ... very difficult decisions.''
Subjective values are as much at stake as objective science here.
''Ensuring the health and safety of the American people and protecting our environment is a matter of making choices,'' says C. Boyden Gray, chairman of a group studying the issue for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, in Cambridge, Mass.
Government regulation in the United States now costs about $600 billion a year (roughly $6,000 per household), with environmental protection growing the fastest. Some of the cost reflects bureaucratic budgets, but most of it is in higher prices for goods and services impacted by regulation.
''Too many regulations impose undue costs, and the regulatory process itself has become too cumbersome, unresponsive, and inefficient,'' says Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware.
Harder to calculate are the economic benefits of regulation. One study put it at $200 billion a year.
But it is almost impossible to reckon in monetary terms the health and environmental benefits of, say, a sharp reduction in lead emissions, automobiles emitting fewer tailpipe pollutants, or health-care costs avoided through the government's antismoking campaign. Is it worth an extra $5 million to save a single life? More?
Even harder to quantify are the benefits of protecting nature for future generations.
''How do you get a cost-benefit analysis of a wild and scenic stream?'' Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked recently.
In Senate bills to be considered this week, the ambiguities of applying economics to laws dealing with health, safety, and the environment are apparent.
A bill authored by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas requires weighing the costs of any regulation whose potential economic impact exceeds $50 million.