Reversing what Clinton has done: How easy?

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Just two days after Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, he began signing new executive orders, overturning a host of decisions made by his Republican predecessors.

Now, the Bush camp says it, too, is poised to brandish its pen. It is ready to undo eight years of Democratic rules, regulations, and other executive actions that, taken together, have had some of the most practical impacts on the everyday lives of Americans.

"Our policy staff is vigilant and is on the case," Ari Fleischer, spokesman for President-elect George W. Bush, said recently.

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Yet reversing what President Clinton has done will not be easy. While it takes only a stroke of the presidential pen to negate a previous chief's executive order, it's quite another matter to roll back rules at federal agencies - an area where the Clinton administration has been especially active lately.

New rules and regulations

Last week, for instance, the president announced new rules banning roads and commercial logging on nearly one-third of federally owned land - including the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Taking Mr. Clinton's move a step further, US Forest Service director Mike Dombeck this week issued a new policy barring the cutting of old-growth trees on public lands. Mr. Dombeck admitted, however, that the policy would be subject to review by the incoming administration.

In recent months, the Clinton administration has also established new rules on workplace ergonomics, organic food, diesel fuel, medical privacy, and federal contracting.

"What's really been coming out in the last months now are substantive, underlying rules and policy changes at the federal level, which are much more difficult to reverse," says Boyden Gray, who undertook regulatory review for Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Months, and even years, went into the creation of some of these Clinton regulations. The agencies had to publish proposed rules in the federal registry, take public comment, and come back with final changes. A new administration would have to go through exactly the same, time-consuming process to change these rules.

Of course, another way to get rid of regulations is to fight them in court - and the business community is doing just that, with complaints against the new standards for ergonomics and federal contracting.

A third way involves Congress. Congress has the power to reject a new rule by majority vote within 60 days of the rule being issued. Until now, lawmakers have never exercised this right, for fear of a presidential veto. But that threat would be gone with a Republican-led White House (although, because the GOP has lost ground on the Hill, they're also less assured of a majority vote).

Just because it's difficult to undo Clinton's actions, however, doesn't mean the new administration won't try. And plenty of people, from Republican lawmakers to the business community, have ideas about what Mr. Bush's first targets should be.

Primary targets

Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, for example, has sent Bush a letter urging him to reverse some of Clinton's national monument designations.

Tim Maney, director of congressional public affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce, says the new president should focus on labor and environmental regulations, which he says are especially burdensome for business.

Mr. Maney also advises the Bush team to establish, by executive order, its own guidelines for issuing new regulations. One of the first things Clinton did was ditch Reagan's guidelines, which curbed regulations by requiring a cost-benefit analysis of all new rules.

Another area where Bush might immediately act would be to reverse the abortion-related executive orders that Clinton signed in his first few days in office. Last week, Mr. Fleischer reminded reporters of the president elect's campaign promise to oppose federally funded fetal-tissue research.

"Bush could go in and reverse on fetal tissue, and do something to make abortion and abortion counseling more difficult to get," says Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

On the other hand, he says, Bush also needs to consider these reversals and rule reviews in the context of today's political climate. With all the talk of bipartisanship, and with some nomination battles ahead, he may not want to ignite a political firestorm.

This is especially true when it comes to reversing Clinton's designations of wilderness monuments, says Mr. Moe. "He may be able to nullify them, but these are popular in the polls, and certainly people are in favor of national parks and monuments. It would look bad, especially for a president branded as anti-environmental coming in."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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