Under Reagan, Scrutiny of Rules Became the Rule
"There was an intense effort in those early years to pare back rules. They were quite successful in slowing the regulatory process. All the rules went through OMB and these guys were not afraid to hold rules they didn't like. They never met a rule they liked," said Bass.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen who was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration, said, "Ronald Reagan invited the regulated industries to set the agenda for the government. The only reason he wasn't totally successful was that the Democratic Congress and the courts stopped him."
She said the air bag rule that was revoked in 1981 was reinstated after the Supreme Court disagreed with the Reagan administration. In 1988, the rule went into effect.
Katzen said the Clinton administration made changes to the Reagan executive order, limiting review to only significant rules. She said the Reagan system lacked transparency and created a "black hole" where rules went into OMB for review and never came out. "You didn't know what was happening, and there was no way of finding out," she said.
For business, this was a time of regulatory harmony with the administration. Said Richard L. Lesher, then president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "It worked wonderfully well. The Chamber policies and the Reagan policies coincided from top to bottom. He came in knowing the Chamber would be the key place to get input."
Frederick L. Webber, who was executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute at the time, said "it wasn't a slam dunk" in getting rules changed. He noted that regulators were watchful in light of the nuclear accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island.
"They didn't agree with everything that the investor-owned electric utility wanted," he said. "The oversight was strong from where I sat, but not unreasonable and not punitive."
Congress also was watching closely what was happening on the regulatory front.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the process an "assault" on regulation. He remembers the Reagan Federal Communications Commission killing a rule that required networks to provide children's programming, a change that Markey responded to with legislation in 1990.
Gray said he still remembers calling the general counsels of the federal agencies into a room to read the new Reagan executive order, which they did not know had already passed muster with the president. "They were grumbling, screaming, saying it was outrageous," said Gray, now a partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. "Then they saw that Reagan had signed it. It was a great day."
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