For business, it is another opportunity to create an inventory of regulatory irritants.
Responding to a third Bush administration call for nominations to "reform" regulations -- this time with a focus on rules affecting manufacturing -- various business groups have sent wish lists to the Office of Management and Budget in the past few weeks on what they want to change, eliminate or update.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has submitted more than two dozen proposals to OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with several aimed at changes in the Family and Medical Leave Act, including what qualifies as a "serious medical condition."
The National Association of Manufacturers wants lots of "little fixes," said Lawrence A. Fineran, its vice president of regulatory and competitive policy. One is an update to a 1969 Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard that stipulates how to use flammable liquids in spray applications for boatbuilding. "This 'nitpick' calls for a prompt letter [to OSHA] and the NAM strongly urges OIRA to send one," said the NAM comments. The trade group also submitted requests for changes to seven major rules, including those implementing the family and medical leave law.
The National Federation of Independent Business wants OSHA to make it easier for small businesses to know when they need to make changes in labeling chemicals and in training workers in how to handle them. It also wants a rulemaking to define what constitutes a wetland, which determines whether companies have to apply for permits to discharge pollutants.
Public interest groups, not surprisingly, have an entirely different view of the Bush administration's invitation to help houseclean the government's regulatory closet. They are in an uproar over the compilation, calling it a regulatory "hit list," and they charge that centering the initiative on manufacturing is an election-year ploy to blame job losses on regulation.
"What OMB has become for business is the special-interest pleader. Each company and industry has its own set of particular [rules] they don't want," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer group. In its comments, Public Citizen listed protections that the administration should consider implementing -- rather than discarding -- in the areas of food, auto, drug and workplace safety.
Lisa E. Heinzerling, professor of law at Georgetown University and a critic of putting a price tag on regulation, said the administration is "pandering" to manufacturers in an election year. "They targeted manufacturing and said, 'Come to us with your woes.' "
OIRA asked for the comments last February as part of preparing an annual report to Congress summarizing the costs and benefits of federal regulation. So far, OMB has received more than 100 nominations from dozens of groups and individuals.
In its call for candidates, OIRA said it wanted to examine rules that might need to be modernized to "reduce costs, increase effectiveness and enhance the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers."
"As we review these reform nominations, we will be looking for ways to reduce regulatory and paperwork burdens on U.S. manufacturers without significant loss of regulatory benefits," OIRA Administrator John D. Graham said in an e-mail response to questions. "Even for rules that have significant public benefits, there may be creative reforms that achieve benefits in a more flexible and less costly manner."
The administration's first request yielded 71 nominations. The second time around, it received 316 suggestions.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has monitored the process closely, concludes the exercise has paid off. For example, its 2002 list asked for the elimination of a Clinton administration rule that would allow states to use unemployment insurance funds to pay for family leave. The Bush administration scratched the rule on Oct. 9, 2003. The chamber pushed significant revision to white-collar exemptions in the Labor Department's overtime rule. A new rule was issued in April, instituting significant change in how workers get paid overtime -- though it is being challenged on Capitol Hill.
It also objected to a definition of what constitutes musculoskeletal disorders, terminology that is important in determining whether a workplace is protecting its workers from ergonomic injuries. The OSHA definition was repealed last June.
"In the murky, complex world of regulation, this provides a way to highlight rules that need attention," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the chamber.
OIRA officials have not yet decided how the current crop of nominations will be handled, but it is expected there will be collaboration between OMB and the agencies.
OMB Watch, a public interest group that monitors regulatory activity, said in its comments that OIRA was given authority by Congress to compile an annual report on the costs and benefits of regulation, but that any suggestions for reform should go to Congress.
"Congress did not, however, authorize OIRA to open up those protections to an industry free-for-all . . . and Congress definitely did not authorize OIRA to conduct its own series of follow-up actions prompting agencies to implement any hit list," OMB Watch said.