Moved in large part by Ronald Reagan's promise to "get the government off your backs," the people of this neat, pleasant city on the north shore of Lake Winnebago gave him their strong support in the last presidential election and then sat back to await the results of his war against federal regulation.
They're still waiting.
Despite the continuing waves of "deregulation" that seem to be pouring forth from federal offices back in Washington, people here generally say the government's involvement in their lives has not changed at all. And some people here who seemed confident a year ago that a determined president would make a difference now say they've pretty much given up hope that Reagan, or anybody else, can tear up the government's rulebooks.
There have been instances where the anti-regulation push in Washington has borne fruit here in Wisconsin; officials at Kimberly-Clark Corp., the big paper firm that has headquarters here, are still pinching themselves about an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection that lasted less than an hour. It used to take two days. But there have also been instances where the regulatory burden has increased; the student aid office at Lawrence University had to hire new clerical staff to cope with the increased work resulting from one of Reagan's "deregulatory" initiatives.
Some people here who have personal dealings with officials at the regional offices of federal agencies have found the bureaucrats more cooperative, or at least less hostile, than before.
For the most part, though, a visitor to this city who asks how things have changed under Reagan and deregulation gets the same answer:
* "None. None. We just bid a little sewer job, government funded, and the regs hadn't changed a bit," said Don Utschig, president of a construction firm.
* "Nothing that Reagan's done has touched us yet, not even in personnel," said Judy Griffin, air pollution sampler.
* "They're still sending me all the same paperwork with all the same questions to answer. This Census Bureau form they sent last week, it was two feet long," said Viona Klemp, municipal payroll clerk.
* "Hasn't been any change in any rules that I can think of. From what I hear, not a damn thing's going to change," said Ty Stefl, dairy manager.
The disparity between rhetoric in Washington and real life in a fairly typical American city like this one (Appleton has a population of 60,000) probably reflects the sheer enormity of the government's regulatory apparatus. "The federal government is everywhere," says Bill Brehm, the city's energetic young planning director. "Reagan can maybe stop the growth of all this busy work, maybe cut it by 10 percent if he's really lucky, but you're still going to have 90 percent of it in place. See, that's still huge if you're the guy who has to plow through it all."
Brehm and his planning staff are among those whose jobs have been made at least a little easier by Ronald Reagan's anti-regulatory campaign. The city's annual application for community development block grants, formerly a 70-page magnum opus that took months to prepare, will now require only a general "statement of objectives" that Brehm thinks he can type up on a single page. And the so-called A-95 review, a requirement that all federally funded projects be screened by a regional planning group--"a totally useless waste of time," Brehm says--is no longer being enforced.
"But really all they've done is to lop off the bottom of the list," Brehm says, leafing through an overstuffed ring-binder jammed with regulations and forms that are still in force. "We still waste a lot of time every day on a lot of boilerplate from Washington."
A year ago, when Reagan had just arrived in Washington, Brehm was one of many people in this generally Republican town who expressed confidence that the new president could make deep inroads into federal regulation. "The freeze on regulations is the greatest thing a president could do!" he said then. "Somebody has to kill this monster."
Today Brehm, like some others here, seems to think the monster will prevail. "I suspect there won't be much change in most of the stuff we have to do," he says now. "It's just--the government is always going to have a lot of rules and paperwork."
That perception, that government regulation has become an immutable part of life, may also contribute to the sense here that nothing much has happened. Some businesses here are so used to complying with regulations that they are even more resistant to change than the government.
When a reporter drove up to the tiny studio of WVMS-AM recently, the station's whole staff went into a tizzy. "We thought you were an inspector" from the Federal Communications Commission, said manager Jim Bethke. "When we see an out-of-state license, our first thought is, 'Oh God, the FCC.' " Not that Bethke had anything to fear. Even though the regulators have eliminated many of the logging and air time rules that used to govern broadcasters, WVMS still maintains all the same logs.
"We still do it because, number one, you have to have some documentation whether the government wants it or not. Number two, whether it is just a conservative philosophy or fear that they'll change their regulations back some day, the mind of the broadcaster is not to change."
In some cases, the "Reagan revolution" has led, paradoxically, to an increase in government red tape. Although Preston Wilbourne, president of Air Wisconsin, the successful regional airline that is based here, supported the president's firing of the air traffic controllers, he finds the result ironic: "In effect, they've re-regulated; the department of Transportation is controlling our traffic like the CAB Civil Aeronautics Board did before the deregulation."
After the Department of Education announced, with considerable fanfare, that it was "deregulating" the terms of guaranteed student loans, the business office at Appleton's Lawrence University had to increase its clerical staff from two persons to three to handle the paperwork. "The feds turned this over to the states," explains Marvin Wrolstad, Lawrence's vice president for business affairs. "So for anybody involved in administering these loans, you basically have to deal with 50 sets of rules instead of one.
"I'm sure in Washington they're talking about reducing paperwork and getting the government off your back and stuff like this," Wrolstad says. "But the fact of it is, out here, it hasn't changed much. There's some difference, yes, but it's not so much tangible as it is a change of mood."