Overshadowed by issues such as the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy, federal regulation has been discussed little, if at all, by the candidates in the presidential election taking place today.
But tucked into the candidates' position papers and Web sites are indications about the role regulation would play in a second Bush or a new Kerry administration. Their views in many cases are polar opposites. Bush, for instance, allowed snowmobiles in Yellowstone; Kerry would phase out their use in the park.
President Bush addresses regulation as part of his "Plan for Creating Opportunity for America's Workers," which can be found on the Bush-Cheney Web site. Bush promises to reduce the regulatory "burden" by continuing to insist on good science and economics; making sure new rules are flexible and don't harm small business; and streamlining existing rules and paperwork requirements. He advocates tax credits and market incentives to address energy needs and environmental challenges.
On Sen. John F. Kerry's Web site, it's harder to discern the candidate's overall philosophy of regulation. But past votes in the Senate and positions he has taken on domestic issues indicate he would use the regulatory tools available to him more often.
Kerry, regulatory analysts expect, would act to prevent risks when it comes to issues like the environment and workplace safety. The Massachusetts Democrat has indicated, for example, that he would push more funding for the Superfund program to clean up polluted industrial sites. He promises to reverse the recent rule determining eligibility for overtime, push for deep reductions in mercury emissions, increase fuel-efficiency standards and institute a mandatory federal standard to prevent repetitive-motion injuries on the job.
"He understands you don't need to over-regulate, but he believes in basic protections. There is a role for government. He'll get everyone to the table and find the right balance," said Sarah Bianchi, policy director for the Kerry campaign.
President Bush, on the other hand, promises more of the same: cutting back on new rules and eliminating "ineffective" regulation.
Chad Kolton, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in an e-mail that the Bush administration has reduced "the growth of costly new rules by 75 percent," compared with the two previous administrations. At the same time, it has issued numerous new rules, including tightening emissions from off-road diesel engines and modernizing food labels "to promote heart-healthy choices," Kolton said.
Bush signed legislation to repeal President Bill Clinton's ergonomics rule; stretched out the compliance timetable for reducing mercury emissions from power plants and other sources, and supported oil drilling in Alaska and development of some wetlands and logging in national forests. Rulemaking at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has slowed to a crawl.
For the businesses, scientific and public interest groups that monitor regulatory policy closely, there is intense curiosity and speculation about what Kerry would do on the regulatory front, as well as armchair analyses of the Bush record.
To groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, the impact of regulation is one that "our members understand," said Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy.
The NFIB sent members a rundown of the candidates' positions on issues such as protecting private property rights and exempting small business from the Family and Medical Leave Act. It said Bush supports those positions and Kerry does not. "John Kerry really wants to pile on more rules," Langer said.
Conversely, environmental and public interest groups criticize Bush as a lax regulator and a poor steward of public lands and the environment. Labor unions complain that the administration's emphasis on voluntary compliance of workplace rules and alliances with business has undermined OSHA's authority and that too many former industry executives are running the agencies.
"There is a presumption against regulation." said Thomas O. McGarity, president of the Center for Progressive Regulation and a law professor at the University of Texas. "The belief is unimpeded markets ought to be allowed to function without regard to the harm that risk-producing activities cause to the environment or public health."
It is widely understood that the Bush administration thinks federal regulation should play a limited role in the economy and that costs and benefits of a rule are carefully considered.
A chief proponent of that philosophy is John D. Graham, a Harvard professor who Bush appointed head of OMB's regulatory office. Graham has instituted strict guidelines for reviewing the costs and benefits of proposed rules, has sent rules back to agencies for more justification, and has allowed third parties to challenge the data behind rules.
"Regulation should be used carefully and selectively based on scientific, economic, ethical and legal factors to produce results in the most cost-effective manner," Kolton said.
Cass R. Sunstein, professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, said Graham has been "a little like a preacher in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Kerry hasn't talked much about it, if at all. In environmental and health and safety regulations, the Bush administration has wanted to see the numbers."
Susan Dudley, director of the Mercatus Center's Regulatory Studies Program at George Mason University, rates Bush as a proponent of smarter regulation. She said Bush was "more careful" about regulating than Clinton, but she did not consider Bush to be deregulatory or anti-regulatory.