Clinton's Midnight Rules

Washington has yet to see snow this year, but it is preparing for a blizzard of "midnight regulations." These are rules by executive fiat, coming during the lame-duck days of President Clinton, that are timed to avoid, even ignore, the will of Congress.

This long-held practice by outgoing presidents needs a fundamental change, no matter how well-meaning these executive orders.

The Clinton administration's moves to get last-minute regulations into the Federal Register before Jan. 20 rivals Jimmy Carter's in sheer number.

In the past 12 presidential election years, the volume of regulation grew by some 15 percent in the last three months of a president's term compared with the same months in nonelection years, according to Jay Cochran, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia who studies the issue.

This avalanche of sometimes costly rules helps an outgoing administration do an end run around controversy. It's legacy on the cheap.

Take, for instance, the possibility of Mr. Clinton designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as a national monument, blocking oil drilling there. Or the likelihood of new rules to create a shortened form of a patients' bill of rights. Or a push for some 88 new environmental rules.

From changes in the food-stamp program to a regulation barring companies accused of violating federal environmental, labor, and health laws to an expected Department of Energy setting of new energy efficiency standards for washing machines, the Clinton list is long - and expected to be the largest ever.

In the Newt Gingrich years of the mid-1990s, the Republicans passed a law allowing Congress to overturn regulations. Yet it's remarkable Congress hasn't seen fit to reverse even one regulation. That's mainly because politicians try to make good on their campaign promises rather than overturn a president's actions.

The Supreme Court, if it chooses, can help restore the legislative-executive balance in a case now before it. The case, brought by business, challenges the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to toughen air-pollution standards without congressional approval.

Businesses have a rough time figuring out, obeying, and paying for the multitude of regulations that rain down on them. And in this end-of-administration rush, even the watchdogs say they can't keep track, much less weigh in with public comment.

Citizens can do their part to stay informed. Regradar.org is a useful nonpartisan Web site for tracking rules and regulations. And Congress gave itself the power to request a General Accounting Office study of the costs attached to new rules and regulations. That may help to stem the onslaught.

All three branches of government need to stick to their constitutional mandates, serving the people by widening dialogue over public policy, not closing it off.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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