The Queen of Hearts in Alice's Wonderland disposed of irritants by declaring "off with their heads." With comparable whimsy, Ronald Reagan is executing needed health and safety regulations.
But he is hitting the wrong targets. His dream-world logic has many real-life consequences for the health of the American people. Unless his actions are checked, more Americans will fall victim to preventable illnesses, injuries and deaths in the coming years. With Reaganomics dominating the regulatory system, the sanctity of human life has plummeted as a national priority.
On the other side of the coin, there are major regulatory controls ripe for elimination that remain untouched. Reagan's business friends, who have sparked the attacks on health and safety programs, welcome regulation that subsidizes selected industries, limits entry to markets and encourages monopoly pricing. Regulation designed to reduce business risks has long held sway in the agriculture, telecommunications, energy, utilities, rail and (until recently) trucking and airline industries. Uncle Sam is fine when he plays Uncle Sugar. It's just when he's Uncle Sam that he's a nuisance.
The political battles over regulatory decisions reflect a basic struggle between business and citizens over property rights and human values. Congressional hearings have documented just what control over the environment and marketplace by private business has meant to the nation--toxic wastes in our neighborhoods, the ecological anarchy of acid rain, and highway violence that each year equals our casualties from the entire Vietnam War. During the past 20 years, Congress responded. It enacted vital consumer, health and environmental statutes to protect the quality of life from the anti-social behavior of U.S. industry.
It is not widely understood that health and safety regulation is a modern form of preventive medicine. It is a more humane, effective, frugal alternative to after-the-fact remedies. Even successful liability suits cannot restore life to a dead man or health to a cancer victim. Moreover, once the government adopts a new regulatory standard, such as pasteurization of milk or recalls of contaminated food, it sets a new societal ethic that matures into a routine expectation.
In its zeal to serve the Fortune 500 constituency, however, the Reagan crowd is subverting these achievements. The preeminent good is defined as business welfare, not the well-being of the American people. A brief survey of Reagan's regulatory policies reveals perverse priorities:
The Food and Drug Administration spent over 10 years developing a standard for patient package inserts on 10 classes of prescription drugs. Dozens of scientific studies substantiated the need for this basic consumer information about the proper use of a drug, its risks and its potential side effects. The Reagan administration revoked the standard in December 1981, one month before it was to take effect.
Meanwhile, FDA's parent, the Department of Health and Human Services, refused to stop $40 million in wasteful reimbursements under Medicare and Medicaid for 150 ineffective drugs. The FDA itself had found the drugs ineffective, but is years behind schedule in removing them from the market, despite statutory requirements.
By contrast, HHS acted quickly against one of the most beneficial consumer programs, generic drugs. Within three weeks of taking office, Secretary Schweiker moved to require separate testing and approval of each generic drug even though generics have the same active ingredients as the already approved brand-name drugs. The secretary then changed his mind after he was sued by Public Citizen.
Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis revoked the most important vehicle safety standard ever issued for automobile crash protection. Rather than a chance to save thousands of lives and tens of thousands of injuries each year, Lewis was more impressed by Detroit's pleadings than humanitarian acclaim. His decision, which the Court of Appeals recently overturned with a rare display of anger, would mean an increase in highway deaths from 50,000 to 70,000 each year as more small cars take to the road.
Similarly, for the tire industry, DOT announced it will revoke the tire quality grading standard that now gives consumers, for the first time, the chance to compare traction, treadwear and heat resistance performance, the three most crucial criteria for tire purchasers. But even as he withdraws purchasing information from consumers, Reagan has intervened in the marketplace on behalf of Detroit manufacturers by limiting competitive car imports from Japan.
Secretary of Agriculture John Block will soon relax standards for the composition and labeling of mechanically processed meat products. Consumers will not be told that the products contain powdered bone, only that they have "calcium added." Already Secretary Block has stopped publishing the names of meat processing plants that chronically violate the law. And plans are underway to eliminate mandatory continuous inspection of meat plants.
To the Reagan administration, the health of babies is apparently less important than the health of the food industry. The FDA delayed for almost a year a requirement that infant formula makers pre-market test each batch for nutrient content. The regulation was finally issued after a crisis recall when Wyeth Laboratories failed to add Vitamin B6, an ingredient essential for infant nutrition, to its baby formula.
On the other hand, consumers will pay more for their food because of regulations--agricultural marketing orders--the Reagan Agriculture Department has decided not to remove. This program is a sophisticated price fixing system for fruits and vegetables that adds millions of dollars to the price of food every year, as will the sugar import quotas recently imposed.
In defiance of public concern and several new laws, the Environmental Protection Agency has delayed standards for the safe disposal of hazardous wastes in landfills for two years. Standards to control incineration and storage of hazardous waste has been suspended indefinitely. Preferring ignorance to action, EPA will not ask manufacturers for an annual report on the quantity and disposition of waste produced during the year. While eschewing these regulations, the administration is fighting to preempt state and local governments from controlling the transportation of hazardous wastes in their densely populated communities. Where is the new federalism?
Responding to pressure from small, independent oil refiners, the EPA may extend the October 1982 deadline or relax the existing standard for removal of lead from gasoline. Since the standard first went into effect in 1976, the Center for Disease Control has found an impressive 36 percent reduction in lead blood levels. Lead is a potent poison, causing brain damage and learning deficiencies in children and adverse effects on reproductive systems.
With the discretion accorded government agencies under the law to issue, amend or revoke health and safety regulations comes the responsibility for the life and death of the people. But under Reagan, decisions are rationalized as economy measures. The official OMB review papers do not even provide space to list benefits to the public--only costs to business. In fact, revocation of health and safety standards does not reduce costs. They are instead shifted to the victims, and multiplied because subsequent remedies are far more expensive than prevention.
Today the notion of a humane government seems a quaint anachronism. Reagan has abandoned its traditional role of watchdog against violence and monopoly in the marketplace and protector of the environment. Instead, the government has become a loading platform for dispensing subsidies to the wealthy and powerful.