The big and the little of Reagan administration's 60-day halt to federal rule-making are illustrated graphically by two regulations -- one designed to correct a slight inconvenience and the other the apparent solution to a major economic and political battle. The real kick is that the lack of either regulation apparently will make no immediate difference at all.
The "little" is a minor regulation that would let sherry drinkers enjoy their favorite libation aboard commercial aircraft. The "big" is a set of rules that would force strip-miners to restore prime farmland to its pre-mined state.
The country has come a long way from the days when a bottle could be any size. Since Jan. 1, 1979, the government has had a list of approved bottle sizes in which certain beverages may be sold. The approved sizes for wine range from the three-liter container (four-fifths of a gallon) down to 100 milliliters (about half a cup).
It became apparent recently to the National Association of Alcoholic Beverages Importers that while the 100-milliliter bottles was fine for airplane servings of dinner wine, it was a bit large for sherry or madeira. "Most people didn't want that much," said William T. Drake, assistant director for regulatory enforcement at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The importers petitioned to be allowed to sell wine in 50-milliliter bottles -- the size the airlines use for stronger stuff, like scotch or bourbon. In due course a proposed rule appeared in the Federal Register, comments were solicited and a public hearing held. "nobody was opposed. Even some consumer groups were in favor of it," said Drake.
The rule recognizing the 50-milliliter size came out in January and would have gone into effect Feb. 16 -- until the regulatory freeze intervened. w
So no sherry airlines? Technically, yes, but many airlines stock a large bottle, at least in first class, and dole it out in small shots to people who request it.
The halt on the prime farmland regulations is a bit stickier, although no one seems desperately worried about that one, either. When the Surface Mining Act was passed in 1977, there was heavy debate over the degree to which the government had an interest in the way coal was mined beneath America's breadbasket.
The law finally said that mined land nationwide had to be restored to its approximate original contour and its original productivity. But Congress left it to the regulators to spell out what that meant and how to do it.
Edward Johnson, now a senior technical services staff member at the Office of Surface Mining, was in the soil study group, one of the task forces assigned to write the regulations for various sections of the law.
"The knottiest problem was the lack of research information on the degree of success you could have in reclaiming prime farmland," he said. "All we had was two or three growing seasons of data from North Dakota."
Nobody was sure what happened to cropland and subsoil when it was dug up, piled in heaps for awhile and then dumped back into place. Aeration, compaction, moisture content, bacteria population, water "percolation" rates, mineral content, runoff patterns -- farmers were sure all of these affected crop yeild.
The miners were willing to restore the land, but they weren't sure which, if any, of those factors meant what, if anything, to wheat or corn. Drake's group wasn't sure, either.
"It was like having all the ingredients for a cake but you don't know if it will turn out a good cake or will it fall until you bake it," he said. "Our view was, you have to bake it."
The rules, issued March 13, 1979, required miners to put up bond guaranteeing that their reclamation techniques would reproduce all the characteristics of unmined prime farmland, including a specific crop yield, and to grow before-and-after test crops to prove it.
The mining industry people were willing to be liable for reproducing soil descriptions, but they saw no reason to prove they were farmers by matching test yields.
So they went to court. In two decisions in February and May 1980, a federal judge threw out the test plot requirement. The regulations emerged again last Jan. 15 and were scheduled to go into effect this month for the 26 states that mine coal, requiring mining companies to get affidavits from soil scientists that their reclaimed land is restored to its original state.
But now this set of regulations, along with the sherry bottle regulation, are halted while the Reagan team decides what to try to do about them.
The irony for William E. Bye, deputy regional director of OSM's six-state breadbasket region, is that Illinois, Ohio and Indiana courts have issued injunctions to keep their state governments from setting up permanent regulatory programs in accord with the Surface Mining Act until things settle down at the federal level.
"That made any prime farmland rules moot to us anyway," said Bye. "The freeze won't affect the mining here at all."