Regulators Cut Own Red Tape

Federal agencies cowed by Congress

WITHOUT the president's signature, the Republican revolution is only a paper tiger. But don't tell that to Mark Bertini. He's already heard it roar.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scaled back an antipollution program that required Mr. Bertini, a Washington service-station manager, to sell oxygenated gasoline during the winter months. The sudden switch, he says, is a ''pleasant surprise'' that could save him, and his customers, up to five cents a gallon.

Across the nation, experiences like Bertini's are becoming more common. Cowed by Republican lawmakers pushing to roll back red tape by fiat, many federal regulators are quietly making substantial changes, relaxing or even retracting rules deemed too controversial in the current

political atmosphere.

Recent cases of regulatory backpedaling include:

* The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has backed down from enacting new ergonomic standards designed to prevent injuries from assembly line work and other repetitive jobs.

* The Internal Revenue Service has curbed a controversial program to perform random superaudits targeting taxpayers for microscopic scrutiny.

* Just this week, the Federal Communications Commission proposed deregulating cable-TV rates in parts of New Jersey.

* In addition to waiving the oxygenated gasoline requirement in five metropolitan areas, the EPA has retreated on plans to step up automobile inspection and maintenance requirements, and has made little headway on implementing air-quality measures, particularly in California.

As President Clinton continues a White House review of regulations, and Congress forges ahead with sweeping regulatory reform, more changes are expected.

''Those of us who follow regulatory policy would have advised any agency to adopt different policies in this environment,'' says Christopher Foreman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ''[Federal agencies] have no choice but to accommodate the new political reality.''

The agency rollbacks to date, Mr. Foreman says, are largely the result of congressional pressure exerted during the appropriations process. Republicans, he explains, have been slashing the budgets of their least-favorite regulatory agencies and adding provisions that specifically limit their ability to enforce regulations.

On one bill alone, he notes, Republicans attached 17 ''riders'' that would have drastically reduced the EPA's ability to enforce clean air and water laws, and wildlife and wetland protections.

Although most of these attempts to limit the scope of government won't survive the final budget scuffle on Capitol Hill, William Gormley, a professor of government at Georgetown University, says Congress has already signaled that tough enforcement of regulations would cause funding problems. ''Most agencies got the message and made adjustments,'' he says.

Many Republicans, including House majority whip Tom DeLay, hail the new climate as political payback for years of ''regulatory excess'' that saddled businesses with prohibitive costs and paperwork.

Agencies that have refused to capitulate have come under fierce congressional scrutiny. The Food and Drug Administration, for one, has continued some of its most controversial efforts - including a bid to bring cigarettes under its regulatory jurisdiction. Opponents of regulation, including Edward Huggins of the Cato Institute, have branded this effort ''outrageous'' and ''arrogant.''

Yet Mr. Huggins says that despite differing views on issues like tobacco regulation, Clinton and the GOP Congress have much in common on the regulatory front.

Indeed, Vice President Al Gore has been conducting a review of regulations as part of the administration's ''Reinventing Government'' initiative. The president has already signed the ''unfunded mandates'' bill that requires the federal government to pay for strictures it imposes on state and local governments.

The president has also indicated that he might sign a moderate version of regulatory reform. The House has passed a bill that would require agencies to perform cost-benefit analyses before implementing regulations. Another bill pending would would install a ''sunsetting'' provision that would terminate any regulation after seven years unless it met cost-benefit targets.

Critics of regulatory reform bills say they are an attempt to create so much paperwork for government agencies that regulations become unweildly.

While many business owners welcome the recent regulatory easement, critics condemn the Republican approach as a callow attempt to sell out the nation's health and safety standards.

''We're heading down the wrong path,'' says Gary Bass at Citizens for Sensible Safeguards, a coalition of public-interest groups. ''There's no doubt that there are dumb regulations out there, but we don't need a whole new regulatory paradigm in America. We just need to weed out the dumb ones.''

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