Regulatory reform is a lot like campaign finance reform: Everyone thinks it's a really good idea, but it hasn't gone much of anywhere.
In fact, business lobbyists and Republicans are loath to even use the word "reform" anymore.
Republicans, who came to Congress in 1994 eager to dismantle the federal regulatory system, encountered fierce opposition from environmentalists and consumer groups that criticized broad reform legislation as extreme, dangerous to Americans' health and safety, and an obstacle to federal regulators doing their jobs.
Since then, the pace of trying to make fundamental change in the regulatory system has become measured. Less-ambitious legislation has been introduced, and few bills have reached the floor of the House or Senate, mostly because of Democratic opposition or infighting among Republicans.
"There isn't anyone plotting anything overreaching," said one lobbyist for the business community who asked not to be named. "The political reality has led to greater pragmatism, and focusing on tools like cost-benefit analysis [of rules]. Incrementalism. It's become much more accepted now."
Just in the past week or so, the difficulty of moving even incremental pieces of legislation in the Senate related to regulatory issues was illustrated.
When the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee scheduled consideration of several pieces of regulatory legislation Tuesday, it looked as if things might be moving toward voting the bills out of the committee and teeing them up for floor action.
Instead, only one of the bills, the Federalism Accountability Act, was approved by the committee. That bill makes it more difficult for Congress or federal agencies to disregard state laws and preempt them with legislation or federal rule-making. The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee won't meet until the fall to vote on a similar bill.
The Regulatory Right-to-Know Act, which would make it a permanent requirement for the Office of Management and Budget to produce an annual accounting statement and report on the costs and benefits of regulation, was on the schedule but never came up for consideration.
Similarly, the Truth in Regulating Act, which would set up a three-year pilot program for the General Accounting Office to review proposed or final rules if a member of a congressional committee requests a report on it, foundered in committee markup. A similar bill in the House isn't expected to be introduced until the fall.
What stalled these two bills was serious Democratic concern, led by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who would like to see the Senate concentrate its energy on the Regulatory Improvement Act. Levin introduced that legislation with Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). It directs the agencies to write cost-effective, sensible rules, rather than have the OMB or the GAO review and critique rules once they have been issued.
Some Democrats also oppose the Regulatory Right-to-Know Act because they fear it will focus too much on the cost of rules and forget about the non-quantifiable benefits of regulation, such as cleaner air and safer food. Others question a shift puts the GAO in the role of advising Congress on the wisdom of regulatory proposals, rather than letting congressional committees perform their normal oversight of agencies' business.
All these "itsy-bitsy" pieces of legislation worry public interest groups.
"It's an attack on public protections," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which is part of a coalition that opposes the pending regulatory legislation. Bass said in testimony in April that "crucial value judgments" about the worth of regulation would be masked by attempts to base its value on costs and benefits rather than the importance of environmental and health and safety rules.
The House, however, ignored that argument, and on July 26 it passed its version of the Regulatory Right-to-Know Act, 254 to 157, which also would direct the OMB to conduct a budget analysis and annual report on how much regulation costs. It tells the OMB to look at the fine print of rules, specifying the costs and benefits "by agency, agency program, and program component," according to a summary of the bill.
The OMB has prepared similar, though less detailed, reports twice before and is working on a third. Each time, Congress directed the OMB to do the work under a special rider attached to an appropriations bill.
The public interest community and business groups expect some of the legislation that didn't get attention before the August recess to come up again in the fall. But no one is expecting anything too ambitious.
Said Bass: "It's impossible to tell how Congress thinks. I hope the day will come when we don't have to fight off bad legislation but talk about sensible, useful and more timely regulation."
OUT FOR COMMENT: Brian Lane, director of the Securities and Exchange Commission's division of corporation finance, has decided it's the right time to leave the agency after spending almost 16 years there. Though Lane had his differences with employees in his division who support the creation of a union at the SEC, he hasn't lost his sense of humor about it all. He sent out a memo announcing his departure, noting that there were lots of rumors floating around about his future, such as that he would be moving to Kansas City, Mo., to open a barbecue restaurant or try out for the Royals baseball team. Not true, he said. Lane will stay until a successor is found, which means he may be around to see the results of the Sept. 14 vote by SEC employees on whether they want to join the National Treasury Employees Union.