An unusual coalition of interests, including the Carter administration, representatives of big business and consumer activists, joined yesterday in pushing through a Senate subcommittee a bill to alter the federal regulatory process.
The committee vote was 6 to 0.
Although each of the numerous factions involved in the debate over regulatory reform has changes it would like to make in the final product, yesterday's unanimous vote by the Senate Judiciary administrative practices subcommittee on a regulatory reform bill could be a turning point in the five-year-old debate about changes in regulatory policy.
The proposal, introduced by Sen. John Culver (D-Iowa) and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), calls for a detailed analysis of all major regulations issued by federal agencies. Major rules are those with economic impacts of more than $100 million.
In addition, the bill sets up a Committee on Regulatory Evaluation that would combine the functions of the Regulatory Council and review group to oversee agency regulatory efforts.
In a statement, President Carter called subcommittee passage of the bill "an impressive job of melding and refining regulatory reform proposals.
"Regulatory reform is an issue of great interest to myself, the Congress and the American public which urgently needs to be addressed by responsible and well-crafted legislation," Carter said.
Passage of the bill also dilutes calls for broader measures by avowed business critics of regulatory activities.
Although representatives of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were involved in preparing the bill, they also hope to bring up tougher measures to limit activity by regulatory agencies when the bill reaches the full Judiciary Committee, probably in February.
"It's a good starting point," said Richard Patterson, government relations manager for Dow Chemical Co. and chairman of an NAM regulatory reform panel. "But it needs a lot of work to make it a really effective piece of legislation."
Patterson said his group would favor tougher measures involving the costs and benefits of health and safety regulation and the role of economic analysis in issuing new expensive regulations.
Mark Green, director of Ralph Nader's Congress Watch, had written to Carter to express his fear that the final product of the Senate's work on regulation could be a dangerous bill. Yesterday Green said the Culver-Laxalt legislation struggles to steer a compromise course" in the regulatory reform debate.
Nevertheless, the bill, which also was endorsed by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), among others, represents a key step in the Carter administration's drive to institutionalize measures that Carter has taken by executive order.
"Everything we've done is the core of this bill," said one happy administration official. "We have worked hard with Sen. Culver and others to generate broad support of this bill."
The bill's advocates say its enactment significantly affects the regulatory decision-making process by forcing regulators to consider a variety of choices before issuing new rules.
A House judiciary subcommittee is nearing approval of a similar measure, adding momentum to the possibility that regulatory reform legislation will clear the current session of Congress.
In a letter sent to Green yesterday, Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's top domestic affairs adviser, said efforts to improve regulatory analysis, for example, "are superior to illusory cure-alls such as the legislative veto, rigid" cost-benefit analyses of new rules and other tougher measures with considerable business support.
"The president will use every means at his disposal to assure enactment of responsible measures," Eizenstat wrote, suggesting the possibility that Carter would veto unsatisfactory legislation.