TO resurgent Republicans, the US government under President Clinton has become a machine for manufacturing red tape. Critics claim that Federal agencies crank out rule after rule, forcing some roofers to seal themselves in moon suits and paying more attention to the interests of cactus pygmy owls than those of small businesses.
To Clinton officials, many of these same actions seem like long-needed moves promoting public welfare and the environment. Energized US agencies are now working on standards for indoor air quality, workplace ergonomic safety, and other issues that lay dormant for years under Republican presidents.
The struggle to control this regulatory apparatus promises to be one of the most intense, yet least-noticed aspects of the coming Republican Congressional ascendency. The GOP, in fact, is pushing the White House to freeze all new rules for 100 days - an action Clinton officials reject as a dangerous ``blunderbuss.''
``We share the view that burdensome regulations need to be cut back,'' wrote Office of Management and Budget official Sally Katzen in a letter to the GOP. ``We disagree that a blanket moratorium is the best way to proceed.''
The struggle for the regulation ``on-off'' switch may sound boring compared to high-stakes news items such as tax cuts or the O.J. Simpson trial. But federal regulations are the real day-to-day business of Washington. Most lobbying, much legislating, and almost all executive branch work revolves around proposed new rules or changes in old ones.
The Federal Register is the bible of the regulatory set. Each workday this thick publication prints proposed or final rules in tiny type on flimsy newsprint. A recent week's worth of Registers reveals the Washington the mainstream media mostly miss:
* The Department of Transportation is changing the hours of operation at the S36 drawbridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater, Minn. The city mayor complained that traffic was piling up and that the bridge opened too often; the new schedule reduces openings during rush hour.
* The Department of Agriculture wants to relax regulations governing packing containers for citrus fruit grown in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Among other things, a new fiberboard display bin is being added to the list of approved boxes: the new box ``works as an in-store advertisement'' for the fruit, according to the Register.
* The Department of the Interior is proposing to list the Cactus Ferruginous pygmy owl as endangered in Arizona and threatened in Texas. Such a listing would provide federal protection to the bird's range. Readers of the Register learn that ``the call of the diurnal owl, heard chiefly near dawn and dusk, is a monotonous series of short notes.''
THE pages of the Federal Register will be empty for the opening months of 1995, if critics have their way.
Last week incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and new Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas formally asked President Clinton to stop agencies from issuing regulations now, and to continue the ban through the first 100 days of the next Congress.
In addition, the GOP ``Contract With America'' calls for sweeping regulatory reforms. Among other things it calls on Congress to pass laws forcing agencies to run a cost/benefit analysis on all new rules and play closer attention to risk-assessment methods.
Under Clinton regulatory work ``has exploded,'' says Bruce Gates, executive director of Project Relief, an ad hoc Washington group formed to promote the GOP regulatory agenda.
Federal Register pages are near an all-time high. Growth has centered on environmental and health and safety regulations, Mr. Gates says. ``You'd have trouble picking 100 people in the country who would suggest that taking a 100-day break from rulemaking is a bad idea,'' he says.
Yet a freeze would stop such actions as last week's proposed rule mandating stricter air-safety standards for Boeing 737-series aircraft. Public health and safety is served by continued regulatory activity, say some public-interest groups in Washington.
New rules aimed at preventing another outbreak of tainted water such as occurred in Milwaukee last year would be delayed, says Joe Schwartz of Physicians for Social Responsibility. ``The elections were not about weakening safety of drinking water, air, or food,'' he says.
The real aim of Republicans, some lobbyists say, might be to slow the major rules expected in the coming year: an Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation requiring employers to analyze jobs for ergonomic dangers, and a proposed OSHA indoor air-quality standard that would almost totally ban smoking in most workplaces.