Under Reagan, Scrutiny of Rules Became the Rule
John Graham, who currently heads OIRA, said, "The OMB role in regulatory review . . . was reaffirmed and strengthened by his successors from both political parties."
In a Feb. 18, 1981, fact sheet issued by the White House to the media, the administration announced the details of its regulatory program, saying it would "reduce the burden of federal regulations and paperwork . . . and reduce the intrusion of the Federal Government into our daily lives."
The new administration ticked off its accomplishments: creating the Task Force on Regulatory Relief to assess major regulatory proposals, reviewing rules already on the books ("especially those that are burdensome to the national economy or to key industrial sectors"). The White House put a moratorium on new rules issued in the last days of the Carter administration, a process the current Bush administration also used when it came to power. It launched a review of the rules of 14 agencies with an eye to eliminating those in development or already issued.
That plan eliminated a proposed expansion of bilingual education, delayed an air bag rule that was supposed to go into effect in September 1981, withdrew an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule for labeling chemicals in the workplace and stopped the issuance of new efficiency standards for major household appliances.
The administration filled top cabinet posts with "reluctant regulators." The response to the air traffic controllers strike signaled that the administration wanted to apply its free-market, deregulatory principles to a heavily unionized sector of the government.
The administration bragged that it had saved more than $150 billion by 1984 and had slashed the number of proposed rules in the Federal Register from 13,700 pages in the last 30 months of the Carter administration to 9,400 in the first 30 months of the Reagan era. Staffing at federal regulatory agencies dropped from 121,791 in 1980 to a low of 101,303 in 1983 and hovered around that level during the Reagan years.
Along with subjecting agencies to time-consuming cost-benefit reviews, the OMB was cutting agency budgets as a way to redirect regulatory policy. For example, the budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission was cut by some 30 percent, a reduction it has never really recouped.
William A. Niskanen, a member of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers who is now chairman of the Cato Institute, said the Reagan program "accomplished a lot but not as much as they hoped." The administration did drop price controls on oil, deregulated intercity bus fares and routes, and implemented legislation that removed many investment restrictions on savings and loans. The Justice Department dropped an antitrust suit against IBM, and the AT&T divestiture of the old Bell system went forward.
Consumer activists and many Democrats were alarmed at the ideology of the new administration.
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which was founded in 1983, said the administration was "highly ideological."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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