In an unusually strong display of bipartisan politics, the Senate approved legislation yesterday to put tighter controls on the government rule makers.
With well-known liberals joining avowed conservatives, the Senate voted 94-0 for a comprehensive regulatory reform bill to make it harder for regulators to issue rules and easier for the White House, Congress and the courts to challenge the regulations that are issued.
The first piece of legislation to deal with the overall regulatory procedure in 36 years, the measure will force almost all government regulators to pay greater attention to the costs of what they do by requiring them to conduct strict cost-benefit studies before any major rule even can be issued for public comment.
At the same time, the legislation would create new opportunities for rules to be challenged and overturned. The White House will have the authority to review the major actions of almost all agencies, including the so-called independent agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and Federal Trade Commission that up to now have had to answer only to Congress and not to the president.
However, under an amendment approved 92-0 just before final passage, the Senate ruled that the president or his deputies at the Office of Management and Budget that now oversee regulation must be made accountable for their actions. Up to now, they have been able to consult with agencies about their proposed rules without making any of these contacts public. But under the legislation, any significant changes made at the OMB's direction will have to be revealed in a document to be filed in the public record.
Additionally, the legislation would permit Congress to overturn any regulation it disapproved of by a majority vote in both houses. And the courts would have greater powers to review rules because the legislation would shift the burden of proof in defending rules. Where challengers now have to prove the rule is unfair, the legislation would make the agencies prove the rule is necessary.
The unanimous vote demonstrates "an overwhelming voice of confidence for this significant piece of legislation," said the measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.). He and his chief cosponsor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), predicted that the measure ultimately would mean fewer and less costly rules.
The measure now goes to the House, where the Judiciary Committee already has approved a similar bill. Even so, the bill's chances there are unclear. For one thing, its chief sponsor, Rep. George E. Danielson (D-Calif.), left earlier this month to assume a judgeship in California, and no big supporters are lining up to push the measure through.
Additionally, the administration always has been lukewarm about the measure because it has feared it would restrict some of the authority it now has to review rules, and it may become even less enthusiastic now that the Senate has approved a provision giving Congress the power to veto rules. The administration strongly opposes that provision and may drop its support for the measure entirely, several business lobbyists have predicted.
But supporters of the legislative veto predict the Senate's move may guarantee passage in the House. With more than 250 House members cosponsoring an even stricter legislative-veto proposal, several business lobbyists say that, even with Danielson gone, there will be strong pressure to act on the legislation quickly.
The business community was pleased by the legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised it, especially the provision shifting the burden of proof in the courts. "It is a significant step toward putting individuals and agencies on an equal footing in court challenges," the chamber said.
Consumer groups, however, were unhappy. Noting the extra steps that regulators will have to take to issue rules, Nancy Drabble, director of Congress Watch, said the bill "will create more red tape and delay."