With a fervor worthy of St. George, Congress has galloped off to tame the regulatory dragon.
It hasn't mattered that the beast is a congressional creation, the inevitable offspring of Congress' fondness for enacting grand programs and leaving the hard choices to others. That has not stopped the legislators from rushing to choke off the regulations that their programs always spawn: from rules for the classroom to curbs on strip-mining.
Like St. George's dragon government regulations -- the vast body of rules issued by agencies to carry out laws passed by Congress -- have taken on a symbolic importance transcending their substance.
"It is the tip of the spear that government sticks in people," says Rep. Elliott H. Levitas, a leader of the regulation-curbing force.
Claiming to hear anguished cries from back home, Congress has responded so far this year with:
Senate approval of an amendment by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to shift the traditional burden of proof and make it easier to challenge the validity of a regulation in court -- an action that Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) has said could "stop the federal government in its tracks."
Cosponsorship by 225 House members, more than half the total, of a bill sponsored by Levitas to permit either house of Congress to veto any government regulation.
Congressional enactment of language in legislation creating the Department of Education that allows Congress, by action of both houses, to veto any regulations issued by the new department.
A vote by the Senate to let states ignore 151 pages of federal strip-mine rules in devising plans for complying with Congress' landmark 1977 strip-mine legislation.
A broadside at the Federal Trade Commission from several fronts in the House, which is expected to clamp down on FTC aggressiveness with a legislative veto and other curbs.
A Senate vote to create an energy mobilization board with vast powers to blast through state and local as well as federal regulatory obstacles to speed energy programs.
Levitas and some of his antiregulation colleagues believe "this is one area where the tide has really turned." But others aren't so sure.
"It makes a great civic club speech to say, 'Get the government off our backs,'" said Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.). "But it's like foreign aid. We say, "Stop throwing money down that rathole,' and we keep passing foreign aid bills."
Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) is also skeptical, about both Congress' attention span and its determination to correct earlier mistakes. "Congress is like a fire station," he observed. "A fire broke out and everyone responds. You never go back to the old fires. Next year it's always something else."
So far Congress has been able to have it both ways: enacting programs while railing at the regulations that issue from them.
Despite the antiregulation moves, Congress has stood behind most of its programs finding, as Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) notes, that "legislative oversight isn't very sexy" for most members.
The only solid deregulation achievement thus far has been airline decontrol, which was made easier because the industry wanted it. Trucking and railroad deregulation has not had such support. The entirely different sphere of social and environmental regulation has become a permanent battleground.
The impatience with regulations has had subtle effects as well. Some agencies are moving more slowly in their rule-making, and agencies such as the Labor Department's once sharply criticized Occupational Safety and Health Administration have moved to ease the burden of complying with their regulations. The White House, too, has taken steps to more effectively coordinate regulatory action.
While it may not be the overt purpose, this kind of enforced self-discipline is one of the aims of both Bumpers' and Levitas efforts, according to the two men.
They also say their proposals may help fend off more drastic measures, including the dismantling of whole social and environmental programs.
"If there isn't some dimunition of the regulatory process," said Bumpers, "you don't have to be broke out with brilliance to see that people are mad and are wanting some action. And you can always depend on Congress to overreact."
However, other lawmakers, such as Muskie and Sen. Adali E. Stevenson (D-Ill.), believe that the Bumpers and Levitas approach presents more of a problem than a solution.
"WeRe creating a field day for the lawyers, more bureaucracy, more regulatory uncertainty . . . and more ready excuses for failure," said Stevenson. "It's tempting to duck the choice by accepting a shortcut, some self-adjusting mechanism that will make the choice for you.
Said Muskie in a recent speech: "Regulation used to be defined as a law which governed behavior. Lately, the mere mention of the word is making behavior in Washington ungovernable."
Oppostion to government "meddling" is as old as the Republic, and so are government regulations, which go back to action by the first U.S. Congress to empower the president to make rules for trading with Indians.
Business has always been particularly critical, except when existing companies have a vested interest in market-place regulations that crub competition.
As the spurt of program-creation in the 1960s and early 1970s began to send out regulations like popcorn out of a popper, resistance mounted. What began in simpler days as nobleminded efforts to protect people and their pocketbooks, health and environment became a "regulatory juggernaut," widely accused of sapping the nation's economic health and fettering the liberties of its people. Inflation and impatience with obstacles to energy production added fuel to the fire.
Moreover, the regulations, which ranged in scope from pollution controls to design standards for jobsite toliet seats, provided a shooting gallery of targets for frustrations over the complexity, remoteness and occasional absurdity of governmental behavior.
Often the problem has been that Congress employed unduly sweeping or creatively vague language as it tiptoed around politically sensitive issues, forcing regulators to make controversial interpretations. The result has been that many battles got fought three times: In Congress, at the regulatory agency and in the courts.
More often than not, though, even critics concede that most regulations are required by laws or court decisions interpreting them. Two Environmental Protection Agency reviews of pending regulations turned up only a handful that were'nt required by law. And Bumpers estimates that only 2 percent of all regulations would be affected by his amendment, which is aimed at rules that go beyond the clear intent of Congress.
But, on balance, the country does not appear on the verge of dismantling the regulatory machinery that has grown into a virtual fourth branch of government. Indeed, barring a congressional assault on its own handiwork, Washington appears locked into an expansion rather than a contraction of government regulation for the foreseeable future, although perhaps not at the hyperactive pace of the last two decades.
Consider these points:
John Quarles, former deputy adminstrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a sympathetic but critical student of the regulatory process, figures it will take from now until the start of the 21st century to issue regulations from laws already on the books.
EPA, for instance, still is wrestling with definitions under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration soon will celebrate its 10th anniversary but has yet to issue more than a handful of regulations aimed at curbing major health hazards. Most of the regulations have been held up by litigation.
President Carter came into office pledging to cut down on government regulation and red tape and once vowed he would accomplish that if nothing else. But pages devoted to rules and proposed rules in the Federal Register, the government's regulation catalogue, grew from 21,914 in 1976 to 27,337 in 1978. Through September of this year, the page tally was 28,265 -- pointing to a total of more than 35,000 for 1979 and a 70 percent increase in the three years since Carter was elected.
The Library of Congress reports that the 214 legislative veto provisions enacted since 1932 have been used only 63 times in the last 20 years, largely on budget issues. Very few regulations, as such, perhaps no more than one or two outside Federal Election Commission rules, have been vetoed, according to Clark F. Norton, a Library of Congress analyst.
Standing against the tide, Stevenson believes Congress can control regulation only by curbing its own appetite for creating programs. He tells his story to illustrate why he is not optimistic:
Alarmed at the estimated $6 billion cost of congressionally mandated regulations requiring the retrofitting of mass transit vehicles to accommodate the handicapped, he decided to propose a modification in the legislation.
When he arrived for Hearings on his Proposal, "I found that the word had gotten out," he recalled recently, still wincing from the experience. "There they were in their wheelchairs and on their stretchers, with their oxygen bottles. They were there to boo and they did . . . It was awful."
So Stevenson didn't even push his proposal to a vote. "I knew I couldn't win . . . and the issue is still unresolved," he said.
As for the program itself, he concedes, "It was adopted with an abundance of good intentions, and if I was around at the time, I probably supported it."
Now the Equal Employment Opportunity for Handicapped Individuals Act of 1979 is wending its way toward enactment, and Stevenson, fearing that this program also will produce unanticipated regulatory consequences, plans to oppose it. But he harbors no illusions.
"If history repeats itself," he said, "it will soon become law and another bureauracy will be established."