LEGISLATION: Congress Attempts To Stem The Tide Of New Regs

The new Congress seems bent on fundamentally changing the degree to which federal regulations affect businesses and consumers. Three types of reform proposals are under way: shutting the door on new federal regulations; limiting federally-imposed unfunded mandates on state and local governments; and scrutinizing the economic costs and benefits of pro- posed laws and regulations.

The House-passed moratorium on new regulations would likely be difficult to enforce - even if the Senate went along with the House bill. At press time, a Senate committee had approved its own rule-blocking bill. The Senate version is somewhat more moderate than the moratorium passed by the House. For example, it would exempt all regulations that cost the economy less than $100 million a year.

Even when Republican appoin-tees controlled federal agencies, it seemed that nothing could stem the tide of new regulations. Pres-ident Bush ordered a 90-day moratorium during which agencies were supposed to find ways to streamline and improve their output. De-spite several promising concepts that emerged from the exercise, the overall nature and number of regulations were unaffected.

A Congressionally-mandated halt to regulations, which the Executive Branch uses to implement Con-gress's laws, cannot promise better results than a moratorium dictated by the President himself. Indeed, the conservative House majority that voted for the moratorium also created a sizable loophole. Any a-gency would be able to issue a regulation in response to an "imminent threat to health and safety."

One branch of Congress is now in the awkward (not to mention le-gally suspect) position of telling the Executive Branch not to carry out its constitutional function: implementing the laws that Congress passes. A more direct - and obvious - solution would be to change the laws themselves.

Of course, the 104th Congress will say that it can't be blamed for the "sins" of previous Democrat-dominated legislative sessions. Put-ting the brakes on the Executive Branch, as the current leadership might argue, is making the best of a bad situation. Still, the regulatory reform measures in the works are likely to have very significant impacts.

For its part, the House has clearly stated that it wants to slow the pace at which major rules are churned out and to force agencies to re-examine some existing regulations. In some cases, business and industry will have a chance to challenge regulations where compliance costs will likely outweigh the benefits or where meaningful health, safety or environmental advances could be achieved less expensively. Many lawmakers believe that agency bureaucrats simply don't care how much businesses must pay to stay in step with regulatory re-quirements.

Meantime, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) is sponsoring the Compre-hensive Regulatory Reform Act, which would subject proposed regulations to a stringent cost/benefit analysis. If the benefits of a proposed rule outweigh its costs, then it becomes law. If not, it's back to the drawing board or into the trash can.

Supporters of the Republican regulatory reform agenda are particularly excited about creating a process that will force a public give-and-take on the costs and benefits of regulation. Although some evidence demonstrates that many environmental, health and safety regulations would fail the analysis, conservative economists are convinced that a thorough on-the-record evaluation would slow down any future development of such laws and regulations.

Opponents of regulatory reform say that the Republican agenda will abruptly end 25 or more years of bi-partisan health and safety regulation. Indeed, President Clin-ton predicted that the GOP plan "would stop new protection from deadly bacteria in our drinking water, stop safer meat and poultry [and] stop safer cars." However, supporters and critics do agree that the House reforms will create legislative and regulatory log-jams and will promote litigation.

Nevertheless, the reform measures are the first step toward stemming federal laws and regulations. Key lawmakers such as Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee promise to revise or eliminate specific laws that, as they see it, em-body overreaching by the federal government.

By clinging to principle, the GOP may devise a cure that is worse than the disease.