With a wink and apparent nod of approval from the White House, the House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a long-stalled federal regulatory overhaul bill.
A four-month stalemate was broken with the addition of language, previously opposed by the Carter administration giving Congress and the courts new review and veto power over regulators.
But the problem now, for the administration and Congress, is a fastticking legislative clock that threatens to silence their soaring political promises to curb the regulatory agencies.
This bill reported yesterday figures prominently in these commitments to streamline regulatory procedures.
But on this bill, as well as others affecting regulation, time and continuing controversy pose problems for a Congress due to go home in only two weeks to face voters.
The bills at issue here are different from the deregulation bills this Congress has passed for specific industries -- airlines, banks, rails, trucking. These less spectacular bills deal with general questions of regulatory procedure -- what standard must be met, for example, before a court can overturn an action by a regulatory agency. But in some ways these procedural bills could turn out to be the more important.
These are some of the issues and problems:
The House bill still must get clearance for floor action and then, if it is passed, must also be dealt with by the Senate, which has yet to begin debate on two versions pending there.
Faced with the prospect of being accused of killing its own reform centerpiece, the Carter administration moderated its opposition to parts of the version reported by the House committee yesterday.Presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler is reported to have played a key role in softening the White House stand.
The House has passed a paperwork-reduction bill, also with White House support, but a counterpart just approved by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is drawing strong backstage opposition from critics who say it goes too far.
Legislative-veto legislation championed by Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), giving House and Senate power to kill regulatory agency rulers, remains snagged in the House Rules Committee, Levitas accuses the White House of stalling his bill.
Also still on the agenda as part of several bills is controversial language sponsored by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) strengthening court powers to review rules issued by regulatory agencies. Modified Bumpers language, now apparently acceptable to the White House, was included in the bill approved yesterday by House Judiciary.
All of these are related issues and part of the emotional debate, spurred in part in 1976 by candidate Jimmy Carter, over the supposed entanglement of America in too many rules and regulations.
For several years it has made for glorious political sport -- kicking the bueraucrats, blaming paperwork, duplicatikon and federal regulation for many of the country's economic woes.
In the political tongues of Washington, that generally has meant that business and industry want to be freed of regulation. The debate in one congressional committee after another has been over what's fair, what's excessive, what's unnecessary, what's important and who's in charge.
A sleeper in all of this may be the innocuous sounding paperwork act, which has passed the House and awaits full Senate action under the guidance of Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.)
The bill is aimed at cutting duplication, putting federal agencies under tighter control before they seek information from businesses and the public, and making basic data available in one place.
But while the White House is supporting the bill, officials of some agencies in the administration are voicing fears that a great Czarship of Federal Regulation is about to be created in the Office of Management and Budget.
The new powers for OMB -- an extension of the White House -- would be sweeping, although portrayed merely as curbs on paper-shuffling. OMB could stop or deter regulatory agencies from gathering information that could lead to new rules.
"If you want to make the director of OMB the regulatory king of the United States, this Senate bill is a good first step," said one of its critics, Alan Morrison, director of the Public Citizen litigation group.
Defense and intelligence agencies have expressed concern that the legislation could jeopardize their most sensitive work. The Justice Department is worried that OMB could get enmeshed in its hush-hush criminal and antitrust investigations through the information control provisions.
"OMB supports the bill because it is seen as a way to get regulatory reform without the regulatory reform bill, which is stuck in the House," a Senate aide said.
But other Capitol Hill sources said that White House political realists, led by Cutler, are covering their bets on all fronts, as exemplified by the House Judiciary action this week.
A compromise on the Bumpers language, engineered by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), and a compromise on a second version of the Levitas legislative veto -- both apparently signaled by the White House -- broke the logjam.
Cutler, once a lobbyist for some of the country's biggest and most regulated businesses, was widely reported to have persuaded top White House staffers to accept the modified language, meaning: go easier on business.
"Cutler has the savvy to understand the political problem," said a congressman who declined to be named. "His expertise and sensitivity are a very important factor. The administration line has been that they would rather have no bill than an unacceptable bill. It's one thing to have Congress kill your bill. But it's worse to commit hari-kari."