The Bush administration yesterday released the results of a public referendum that it sought to identify federal regulations that should be revised, eliminated or expanded -- including rules that cover natural resources, auto safety, timber sales and nursing homes.
The catchall list was included in an annual report issued by the Office of Management and Budget that estimates how much regulation costs and benefits society. This year, much of the emphasis was on 267 regulations that are likely to be reviewed and then, possibly, changed or rescinded.
The administration already has rescinded numerous rules issued in the Clinton administration and supported a congressional initiative to kill a Labor Department rule that would have regulated how employers handle repetitive-motion injuries in the workplace. The administration also has modified several important environmental rules, such as how industries must comply with emissions standards when they modify their plants.
The OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) said in its report that it received 316 nominations to add, modify or rescind rules at 26 agencies. Among those it will send to agencies for possible change are standards for salmonella, energy-conservation standards for clothes washers, the labeling of genetically modified food, installation of electronic crash recorders for trucks, special uses of the national forests and minimum staffing standards for nursing homes. Almost two-thirds of the nominations targeted rules at the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Transportation; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Federal Communications Commission.
"This is a vehicle for changing or eliminating existing regulatory protections. It's a free-for-all for the corporate community to get what they want," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a public interest group that monitors regulation. "It's a radical approach for eliminating regulation."
The government's effort to solicit candidates for rule changes or elimination expanded this year. The first time the OMB agency asked for nominees, it received 71, and half of those came from the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University, a market-based think tank. Twenty-three were categorized as "high-priority," and action was taken on many. For example, one was a Clinton administration rule to make air conditioners more energy-efficient. The Energy Department replaced that rule with a less stringent one.
Another nominee last year was the Clinton administration's ban on snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park. The Bush administration recently signaled it would not honor the ban and would allow limited use of snowmobiles in the park.
This year's crop of nominees is so large that John Graham, administrator of OIRA, has decided to send high-priority rules to agencies for further review. The report noted that such reviews can be burdensome and construed as an attempt to roll back regulation, but "the difficulties and concerns surrounding this task do not mean it should be abandoned." OIRA said in its proposal to review the nominations that those who suggest change should focus on rules that can be "revised to be more efficient."
OIRA also solicited nominations on "problematic agency guidance documents." Guidance from federal agencies is often an interpretation of existing rules or laws. The report said guidance becomes questionable when agencies use the documents to extend their "real rules." Forty-nine guidance documents were nominated for change or elimination. They included guidance issued on pesticide registration notices, the indirect costs of Superfund and credit unions.
The agency received 1,700 comments from businesses, trade associations, academics, nonprofits and government agencies. About half of the nominations asked for modifications to existing or proposed rules, and almost 8 percent recommended eliminating existing rules. Twenty-five percent asked for new or more stringent rules.
The report said that "process improvements" that have been instituted by OIRA, which reviews federal rulemaking produced by the agencies, will "have a powerful, positive long-term effect on the quality of federal regulation."
Far less prominent in this year's OMB report was an analysis of the costs and benefits of regulation. Instead of totaling the estimated costs and benefits of all rules on the books, OIRA limited its analysis to 67 major rules issued between April 1995 and September 2001.
It determined the cost of that group of rules was $50 billion to $53 billion while the benefits ranged from $48 billion to $102 billion. The agency said the costs and benefits of all federal rules now in effect "could easily be a factor of 10 or more larger" than those it reported on.
The report also noted that as of Jan. 20, 15 rules that were held up under the "Card Memo" still had not been issued. The Card Memo called for the review of rules put out by the Clinton administration shortly before it left office. Some of these rules are being challenged in court.