As Congress blearily shut down this week so members could return home to moan about the excesses of Big Government, one victim of the election-time recess is the often tedious, much ballyhooed regulatory reform legislation.
President Carter and other White House aides like to call their role in revamping key facets of the government's regulation of the transportation industry "the most profound deregulation, economically, of industry in this country's history," to quote Stuart Eizenstat, the top Carter domestic policy aide.
Nonetheless -- after months of negotiations involving at least three congressional committees, business, labor, consumer groups, top agency officials and the White House -- the prospects for a sweeping regulatory reform bill during the current Congress now appear dead. The bill, in its variety of forms, probably even can be buried permanently if Carter is ousted next month.
Clearly, election-year politics is one of the reasons the bill is not getting to the Senate or House floors. "Everybody is posturing to see who gets the blame," said one source. Of late, however, controversial legislation has been avoided by congressional leaders with the vigor of Robert Vesco ducking the Justice Department.
What has happened to regulatory reform, however, is not quite that simple. Essentially, the Carter administration's legislation is designed merely to force all government agencies -- not just the executive branch agencies covered by a similar Carter executive order -- to adopt economic analyses for new rules, conduct periodic reviews of government regulations, preview coming regulatory initiatives and institute a variety of management reforms to make the rulemaking process more efficient.
Other views of what the legislation should be have come from camps as diverse as the business community and the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Some sectors of the business community see the legislation as an opportunity to change the relationships between the courts and regulators, the so-called Bumpers amendment, named for Arkansas Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers who dreamed it up. Kennedy, on the other hand, proposed setting up a regulatory policy board to monitor federal activity.
Some members of Congress wanted to use regulatory reform to push a comprehensive legislative veto that would permit the House and Senate to overturn agency activities. Consumer group leaders saw regulatory reform as a vehicle for legislation to provide money for groups to intervene in agency matters.
Nevertheless, the staffs of Sens. Kennedy and Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), without White House involvement, have settled months of negotiations designed to reconcile major differences between separate bills favored by the Judiciary and Governmental Affairs committees, which the two men chair. The results of that effort are being printed for Senate distribution.
And even the Business Roundtable and the AFL-CIO have had their own pet interests, even though -- through an extraordinary series of negotiations for groups of such diverse interests -- they are close to agreement on a legislative regulatory reform scheme. But a draft of what business and labor came up with last month was not such a hit with regulators.
"Enactment of this draft in its present form could seriously disrupt administrative proceedings in many agencies," wrote a group of key regulators, including Douglas Costle, Environmental Protection Agency administrator and chairman of the Regulatory Council. Others signing the letter, delivered last week to Ribicoff, included Eula Bingham, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Joan Claybrook, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk.
Significantly, the regulators were opposed vigorously to a section of the labor business proposal which called on the agencies to address the "substantial projected economic effects" of new rules, deleting from previous legislative language a section which said the agencies could only take into account such evaluations "permitted by law." The group signing the letter thought the proposal conceivably could have forced them to violate their own guiding statutes.
Thus, it seemed that no matter who tried to break the logjams surrounding regulatory reform legislation, another inevitably would develop. In a statement released yesterday, the Business Roundtable, calling the legislation "important to the nation in terms of productivity and competitiveness in world markets," did not say why the effort failed but said it hoped the recent progress "will pave the way for swift enactment" either later this fall or in the next Congress.
But when all is said and done, despite the effectiveness of the Carter administration in passing key pieces of its regulatory reform program, the omnibus regulatory reform legislation may die for the lack of a constituency.