NO GROUP OF PEOPLE, except perhaps bureaucrats, has profited personally as much as lawyers from the growth of regulatory agencies. Those agencies have made the work of lawyers -- in particular, Washington lawyers -- indispensable to corporations, businessment and, in more recent times, citizens' groups that want to influence government policy. So it is encouraging that the American Bar Association has endorsed proposals to make "a minimal and necessary start" toward correcting "inconsistency and indecisiveness" in the regulatory process.
The most important of these proposals would give the president a veto over most of the decisions of most of the agencies. If such a power were granted, a president could require the Environmental Protection Agency or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for instance, to modify or even change completely any regulation either had promulated. He could not, however, interfere with critical monetary matters handled by the Federal Reserve Board or with most of the non-economic regulations issued by many other agencies.
Underlying this proposal is the belief that the regulatory system is totally out of control. Congress has created so many separate bureaucracies and delegated so much authority to them that no one is in a position to see that government regulations are consistent or reflect a coherent policy. Nor is anyone in a position to accept political responsibility for most of the decisions these agencies make, although such responsibility is often forced upon the White House.
There is much more to be said for a presidential veto than a legislative veto, the method by which Congress is now trying to curb the regulatory agencies. There has never been much logic in depriving the president of control over decisions made by a Cabinet officer or by divisions or sections of a Cabinet department. Yet Congress has often done just that. Giving the president the final say in such decisions would simply restore the executive authority that the principle of separation of powers was supposed to create. Giving Congress a veto affronts that principle.
The problem involving the so-called "independent" regulatory agencies -- the FCC, FTC, ICC and so on -- is more complicated. They have never been part of the Executive Branch, but the power they now wield over the economy and over everyday affairs of life is so extensive that they can undermine almost any general policy a president or Congress establishes.
The one thing that is clear is that the heyday of the regulatory agencies is over. When the trade association of lawyers -- who dreamed up the agencies and spent years perfecting them -- joins the campaign for change, the last major support for maintenance of the status quo is gone.