Ever wonder how the federal government would act if it were subjected to some arbitrary and costly regulatory pressures? Here's a tale of runway rule-making inside the government that, if it didn't involve our handicapped neighbors and our money in the end, might be amusing.
Today is the day that the Architectural and Transportion Barrier Compliance Board (ATBCB) meets publicly to put the final touches on a rule that officials in the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies of the federal government believe will cost billions of dollars to implement. There have been more than 200 comments and some of them are being worked into the final rule. A second meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, when the 22-person board is expected to approve the rule.
The rule will set minimum guidelines for making federal buildings more accessible and useable by the handicapped. As originally presented for comment in the Aug. 18 Federal Register (page 55010), the rule would require federally owned or leased buildings (including many of those where the government only rents some space) to have at least one specially built entrance for the handicapped; special toilet facilities and bathing facilities (if bathing facilities are provided for other employes); special telephones; special elevators and elevator equipment; special windows; special handrails and ramps and warning provisions that can be felt as well as seen (such as ridges on the floor); special drinking fountains; special parking and loading zones; special seating, tables and work areas, and special assembly areas.
In presenting its ideas, ATBCB, which has fewer than 30 employes and a $2.3 million budget, declared it had not provided any economic analysis of the costs involved in meeting its guidelines, but promised to produce them "if it appears that cost factors could significantly impact the economy . . . or if it generates substantial controversy."
The proposed guidelines have become highly controversial, but as of now, according to ATBCB sources, there still is no economic analysis. To get a bit of the flavor of how this inside-government regulation problem is going, the Council on Wage and Price Stability was encouraged to get into the matter and in October urged ATBCB to hold off on its final rule "until it can incorporate cost-effectiveness principles that ensure the largest possible gains in accessibility per dollar of cost to society."
That approach apparently did not work, for ATBCB pushed right ahead. The Justice Department was called in to render some legal opinions on a few of the proposals. The Justice response came last week, and the changes the department suggested are expected to be incorporated into the final rule at the ATBCB working session today.
Several Carter administration officials, who are strong believers in doing more to help the handicapped, have brought this particular rule to my attention because they think the board's expected action and the costs it will generate will turn the incoming Reagan administration totally against the program.
What is just as interesting as the cost of one rule is the way ATBCB has set out to build itself a regulatory empire. For though some adimistration officials worry about what the current rule will mean in adding expenses to government buildings, the board has its eye on far bigger things.
For example, in its notice last August, ATBCB suggested that it plans to develop additional guidelines for "unique aspects of [government] structures," such as "accessible parks," which it wants to discuss with the Interior Department, and hospitals, which it will hammer out with the Veterans Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. And then it wants to get into accessibility in federally funded residential units, something that it will discuss with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Then there is the question of accessibility to public transportation, a subject that already has cities and smaller localities in turmoil because of statutes that are going into effect this year. ATBCB noted last August that its guidelines don't yet touch that area but made clear it believes it has "authority to ensure the accessibility of public conveyances, including rolling stock." The board "may wish to publish on this subject" after it "more fully develops its transportation policy," the notice said.
A "high priority" step in ATBCB's own development plan, according to the August notice, is establishing its own regulatory compliance system. In the interim, the proposed rule sets the executive director of ATBCB up as the man a government agency would have to go to get an opinion on whether a waiver or modification planned for a building complied with ATBCB's guidelines. The ATBCB executive director can then take action against the agency's waiver if he believes it is not consistent with the law or based on fact.
How did the ATBCB come about in the first place? Well, it's a classic government case of what happens in the attempt to do good for a particular group through the good offices of the federal government. The Architectural Barriers Act was passed in 1968, directing the General Services Administration (which builds, leases and runs federal buildings), the Housing and Urban Development and Defense departments and the Postal Service to establish standards "to ensure whenever possible that physically handicapped persons will have ready access to, and use of" federal buildings. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established ATBCB as an independent agency to ensure compliance with the 1968 act. Five years later, Congress passed another law directing ATBCB to "establish minimum guidelines" so that the four agencies had uniform standards.
Given the way bureaucracies work, it's not too great a leap to where we now have ATBCB proposing that new, unisex toilets for the handicapped should be required in those government buildings where alteration of existing separate toilet facilities to accommodate the handicapped is "structurally impracticable." In this type of situation, ATBCB, as an aggressive regulator, also has asked for public comment on whether such unisex toilets should be permitted at "airports or other high-use buildings where a disabled person might be accompanied."