Deregulating America

THE Senate last week began assembling its version of regulatory reform. The compromises being shaped may modify the House's regulatory demolition.

The lower chamber weeks ago produced a Contract with America bill designed to remove many of the environmental regulations built up over the past quarter century.

Change is needed. The question is, how much? The burdens imposed by some rules are out of proportion to any environmental gains. That calls for a means of weeding out over-regulation while preserving bedrock environmental goals, such as air and water clean enough for human safety.

The means embraced by all the bills now in play is cost-benefit analysis - balancing environmental benefits against costs to businesses.

A bill sponsored by Senate majority leader Bob Dole originally applied cost-benefit assessment to any regulation that costs industry $50 million or more. That was twice the $25 million level set by the House, but still low enough to sharply curtail environmental regulation. Amendments flew. One, pro-environmentalist, would raise the cost-benefit threshold to $100 million. Another places small business under the cost-benefit umbrella. Still another stated that cost-benefit findings would not overrule existing laws protecting environmental quality and public health. Senator Dole himself proposed to specify that his bill would not stand in the way of emergency food-safety regulations.

Compromises and counter-compromises are likely to accelerate as the legislation heads toward a Senate vote. The Dole measure retains questionable items. Among them are provisions, shared with the House bill, that would open environmental regulation to extensive legal challenge.

The bill that emerges from all this give and take should direct regulators to weigh the costs their actions impose. But it must also recognize that it's easier to calculate dollar costs for new smoke-stack scrubbers than benefits from different particles-per-million levels of cleaned air. We hope the final compromise bill will allow regulators to make clear-cut decisions without adding costly complications.

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