A handful of middle-level bureaucrats cast crucial votes yesterday that probably will lead to elimination of the government's basic regulation mandating that federally owned and leased buildings be accessible to the handicapped.
All of the bitterness that has characterized the national debate on the role of government was concentrated in a small, dingy meeting room as handicapped citizens and their representatives tried to stave off the inevitable by offering compromise proposals, trying parliamentary dodges and finally simply pleading for more time, to no avail.
At stake in the meeting of the 22-member Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board was a 6-month-old regulation designed to set uniform government-wide standards for the 1968 law requiring that the nation's 35 million handicapped citizens have physical access to their government.
Until 1973, each agency wrote its own rules on the subject. Then Congress created the board to set general standards for all agencies and eliminate massive inconsistencies.
The board finished its task in January, when it adopted a 20 page document containing minimum requirements: that handicapped people be able to get in and out of federal buildings, to use bathrooms and telephones and have access to parking and transportation facilities.
In the last six months, the administration and the philosophy that gave birth to the guidelines have been repudiated. The handicapped accessibility rule was an immediate target for Vice President Bush's Regulatory Review Task Force, which said that the regulation would cost taxpayers $800 million and that the whole business was a classic example of unnecessary government and unnecessary regulation.
A few weeks ago, C. Boyden Gray, general counsel of the Bush task force, convened a meeting of the 11 bureaucrats who sit on its board. Representatives of the handicapped say Gray gave the bureaucrats "marching orders" to vote against the regulation, but Gray demurs.
"I think it should have been clear to anyone how [the administration] felt about it, but I don't recall there was any disagreement," he said yesterday."There was a pretty complete consensus that something had to be done about the minimum guidelines."
With 11 votes in hand, the administration needed to recruit just one of the board's 11 citizen members to gain a working majority. Kay Neil, a housewife from Omaha, had voted against the guidelines originally and gave her proxy yesterday to Roger Craig, leader of the anti-regulation forces.
Craig, an assistant postmaster general, is a particularly ardent opponent of the rule. Postal Service officials estimate that applying the rule to the Postal Service's 33,000 buildings, many of which are neighborhood post offices, would cost $60 million to $70 million annually. The Postal Service's existing accessibility guidelines, he said, are good enough.
Craig made the motion to rescind the rule, and it passed, 12 to 10. Craig also fended off the effort to adopt a compromise that would have left the rule in effect while modifications were made.The compromise lost, 12 to 10.
Finally, Craig made a series of motions to speed the administrative process so a final vote on the rule's demise can be taken Sept. 22. All of the motions passed, 12 to 10.
The date is important because the Office of Management and Budget has asked Congress to eliminate the board at the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30. Without the board an act of Congress would be required to eliminate the rule.
Before being overwhelmed by the anti-regulatory juggernaut, some of the board's handicapped members let their anger show.
Leaning forward in his wheelchair, board Chairman Mason Rose, a former fighter pilot, said:
"I and the people I represent are not prepared to go in the back door . . . and to use the freight elevator. I will not be treated as a social nigger.
"There is no difference between putting up a sign that says 'Whites Only' and putting steps up, effectively saying 'Able-Bodied Only''. . . We're talking about the most irresponsible thing I can imagine the total demolition of 20 months' work.
"I guess the federal members of this board are prepared to let into federal buildings only those handicapped people who can climb Mount Rainier."