REFORMING the way the federal government draws up rules and regulations is proving about as easy as untangling a 40-foot ball of red tape.
Debate on a regulatory-reform bill occupied the Senate floor for most of last week, and promises to be topic No. 1 among senators when they convene for business today. Argument has been heated, even by Washington standards. The reason: Positions on regulatory reform are closely related to deep philosophical beliefs about the proper role of the federal government in United States citizens' lives.
To reform-bill proponents, circumscribing the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and other agencies is all about getting mindless big government off people's backs. To opponents, it means lowering the nation's guard against hazards such as tainted meat and unsafe water.
Lost in all the screeching about E. coli bacteria and mindless bureaucrats, however, are two important political points. The first is that President Clinton is likely to veto any regulatory reform he feels goes too far, making discussion of sweeping change moot. The second is that many lawmakers agree regulators need to do a better job of balancing risks to the public against the cost of implementing new rules.
"Both sides, Democrats and Republicans, want to accomplish a good deal with regard to regulatory reform," said minority leader Sen. Thomas Daschle (D) of South Dakota on the Senate floor last week.
It's one of the most important issues Congress will weigh this year. Regulatory reform may sound obscure, but the regulations issued by Washington agencies govern activities and products that touch the lives of every US citizen almost every day. The cleanliness of the hamburger you bought for last weekend's cookout; safety standards for the airliner that flew your family off on vacation; even opening hours for the highway drawbridge that leads to your kids' camp: All these things can be set by federal regulation agencies.
Of course, in recent years many Americans have come to believe that regulators may touch their lives a bit too much. Horror stories about the intrusiveness of bureaucrats abound - from the elderly farmer prevented from planting crops because a broken drainage pipe had made his farm a "wetland" in the eyes of Washington, to the business fined for the "safety hazard" of a splintered handle on a shovel that had already been thrown away.
Thus regulatory reform is one of the key elements of the Republican drive to limit the power of the federal government. So far, the effort also shows the difficulty the GOP faces in translating its goals into actual laws in the face of Democrats defending against what they claim is legislative overreaching.
AT issue is a GOP regulation reform bill that's been tying the Senate in knots. The Republican bill would require regulatory agencies to conduct cost-benefit studies and risk assessments on rules predicted to have a major economic impact. Theoretically, this would screen out rules whose good to society is minimal, compared with the economic burden they impose.
Though agencies do some of this comparison work now, critics claim they don't do it very rigorously and ignore the results if they want.
The problem, according to Democrats, is that these seemingly mild proposals in fact would throw the FDA baby out with the EPA-approved bathwater. The GOP doesn't want to reform regulation, in this view; it wants to return to the good old days when men were men and DDT was just another chemical.
"I don't think it's reform at all," said Mr. Clinton in his weekly radio address Saturday. "It will force government agencies to jump through all kinds of hoops, waste time, risk lives whenever the agency acts to protect people's health and safety."
All week Senate Democrats hammered the GOP reform effort on the issue of safety. In particular, they raised the theme of bacteria in meat, saying that under the Republican bill industry would be able to head off new meat inspection laws intended to prevent the recurrence of deadly E. coli outbreaks.
Ambiguity in the proposed law's wording gives some credibility to the Democratic charges. Republicans, however, claimed that under an "emergency safety" clause in their bill meat inspection and other important laws would be allowed to proceed, with risk and economic assessment to come later.
Despite the professed desire of both sides for some sort of regulatory reform, at times they seemed to be discussing completely different issues. The House, for its part, has already passed an even tougher regulatory reform bill - making an eventual presidential veto a distinct possibility.