A little-known change with a big effect

Steve Henn Jan 26, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: President Bush is back on his heels a little. He’s trying to sell his new Iraq strategy to an American public that’s lost patience with the war. Not to mention having to deal with a hostile Congress. And he’ll have his hands full with all of that. But the president’s not without power, of course There’s the bully pulpit. And a little thing called executive orders. He’s the executive. He gets to give the orders. Earlier this month he gave one that should make businesses pretty happy. From Washington Stephen Henn reports.

SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK: Whew! You sure gotta climb a lot of steps to get to this Capitol Building here in Washington. But I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is?

STEPHEN HENN: Every former school kid knows . . .

SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK: I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.

But it turns out School House Rock left a lot out — like regulations and lobbyists. After our plucky little bill becomes a law his work isn’t over. It’s up to thousands of civil servants to read every law in the land and write detailed regulations. It’s these regs that give all our laws teeth.

SALLY KATZEN: Virtually every aspect of our lives are affected by the regulations from the way our cars function, to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.

Sally Katzen an expert in administrative law. She says Congress hates getting into the nitty-gritty.

KATZEN: It passes a law and passes the buck.

That’s were federal regs come in. Every bill you’ve ever heard of, from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act has it’s own regulations and guidance. The regs tell businesses what they can and can not do in detail. The guidance explains how these rules might be enforced — sort of like a informal crib sheet.

These regs and memos are where the rubber meets the road. And Bill Kovacs, a vice president for regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says that road is well traveled.

BILL KOVACS: The regulatory process affects every individual, every business in the entire United States. The agencies produce about 4,000 regulations a year. There are 192,000 regulations in existence.

This month President Bush changed how regulations are written in Washington. Now agencies can’t impose new rules until they’ve specifically shown how the free market has failed.Rick Melberth, the director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch — a non-profit advocacy group — says the new rule is bizarre.

RICK MELBERTH: It seems to me that the purpose of regulation is to establish the role of government in protecting people. If you are going to rely on the markets, my problem with that would be that you’ve got to wait until someone gets sick or dies before you recognize the market failure.

Melberth worries these changes could make it tough for the feds take action to keep E-coli out of your spinach salad or chemical waste out of your coffee.

Sally Kazten is confident regulators will find a way to keep Americans safe. But at the very least, she says this executive order will slow down important new rules.

KATZEN: They are raising the bar higher. They are asking for more work, more thought, more effort.

This order also forces every agency to tally up the costs and benefits of each new regulation they issue every year. It makes it harder for civil servants to offer informal guidance to industries — except in emergencies. Most alarming to Katzen, it puts a political appointee in charge of the regulatory process at every agency.

KATZEN: It is also another indication of White House resistance to, if not hostility to, agencies doing their jobs.

But for years, businesses have complained many federal regulations are written too quickly, stay on the books too long, and are sometimes just ill-conceived. Bill Kovacs from the Chamber of Commerce says raising the bar and slowing down the process is exactly the point.

KOVACS: And what we’re trying to do with the regulatory process is trying to rationalize it. To have it make sense. Clean it up.

Officials at the White House insist health and safety will be protected. They say these changes are aimed at creating a transparent process that’s open to the public.

In Washington, I’m Stephen Henn for Marketplace.

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