TO listen to the promises of Bush administration officials, the ongoing moratorium on federal regulations has had no effect on public health. Yet over the course of the 90-day freeze, announced in the president's State of the Union address, dozens of crucial programs, from labeling childrens' toys to nursing home reform, have fallen victim to his zealous deregulators.
On April 29, President Bush extended the moratorium for another 120 days, almost right up to election time. The only true beneficiaries of the regulatory ban: big businesses seeking regulatory breaks. The freeze is little more than an election-year favor to big business campaign contributors - George Bush's quid pro quo.
While the regulatory freeze has done little to bolster the lagging economy, it has successfully delayed untold numbers of consumer and environmental regulations. Look at what the administration considers to be needless red tape: rules to protect construction workers from exposure to toxic chemicals; safety requirements for approval of new drugs; and labels for meat and poultry designed to warn of possible health concerns. With the extension, dozens more vital rules face delay and dismantling.
The list of consumer rules targeted by the freeze is lengthy as well. For example, the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) released a weakened rule to deregulate the S&Ls further, by allowing them to establish interstate branches. Loosening of thrift standards is already costing taxpayers $500 billion in bailout costs.
The moratorium has already had a marked impact on federal agencies. Officials are refraining from issuing final regulations or proposing new ones. When such actions are attempted, there's always the chance of being yanked back by White House overseers. In this chilling climate, the message to regulators that inaction is better than action echoes down agency corridors.
Chief emissaries of this message: Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, charged with running the deregulatory onslaught by Bush. This powerful bureaucratic enclave has already attracted much criticism for its behind-the-scenes interference in the regulatory process on behalf of big business over the past two years. Some of the Quayle council's more infamous actions include a move to lift protection on more than half of the nation's wetlands and ongoing attempts to gut the Clean Air Act. The moratorium
has radically expanded the Quayle council's stranglehold over the agencies, enabling the White House to better orchestrate regulatory outcomes and timing.
It's no coincidence that the week before the Michigan primary, Bush announced a decision to nix a requirement that automakers install a canister designed to capture polluting vapors on new cars - a policy vehemently opposed by the Big Three car manufacturers. And it was more than chance that the administration decided, days before several Southern primaries, to cut fees for owners of low-production oil wells on federal lands - a move strikingly similar to the sort of farm subsidy programs the administrat ion criticizes elsewhere.
CONSPICUOUSLY timed events have abounded since the moratorium began. On the eve of the president's extension, Bush and Quayle helped raise $9 million for GOP coffers at the gala president's dinner, where $92,000 got donors a picture with the president and $30,000 a table with a senator. What greater thanks could Bush have given all the corporate contributors in attendance than another 120 days free of new regulation?
This kind of regulatory favor-mongering may help the Bush-Quayle fundraising effort, but it's a disaster for public health and the environment. The biggest beneficiaries of the moratorium are not the little folks drowning in a sea of government forms. Most of the benefits go into the deep pockets of corporate America - the real Bush constituency.
Deregulation has lost its appeal to an American public still reeling from the S&L bailout, and confronted routinely with news stories about workplace tragedies and dangerous medical devices. A national poll conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates last fall shows just how unpopular deregulation is, as Americans ranked "reduced government safety and environmental regulations" last among 16 options as a way to help the economy. People are not willing to pay the cost - not in dollars, not in health - for
dirty air, dangerous workplaces, and malfunctioning consumer products. Unfortunately, most are unable to pay the price of assuring their message is heard.
One way to put an end to backdoor regulatory dealings is to hold those in charge accountable for their actions. Congress should start by passing pending legislation that would bring sunshine onto the regulatory process and put an end to the reckless abuse that has come to characterize the campaign-finance system.