HAS THE Reagan administration lost its chance to reform some of the most troublesome areas of federal regulation? No doubt it has wiped from the books many burdensome -- if sometimes useful -- planning and reporting requirements. Through an excess of zeal, however, deregulators may have missed the opportunity to make needed changes in areas of far more consequence.
Some examples are well known. The infamous "ketchup and tofu" regulations set back the cause of introducing flexibility into school lunch management. The overreaching rewrite of rules governing the education of handicapped children has probably blocked reasonable compromise for some time. Eased requirements for urban development grants have antagonized not only advocates of the poor but also the city and county administrators who presumably should welcome them.
Less attention has been paid to the backfiring of deregulation efforts in the labor area, although many of these rules were prime targets of the business community. The Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that "prevailing wages" be paid on all federally aided construction, was on everybody's list of reforms (except the construction unions'). The Labor Department, in fact, developed generally sensible -- though perhaps overly ambitious -- rule changes that would have reduced the inflationary impact of the act. But the department did such a poor job in making a case for its proposals that a federal judge blocked their implementation.
An ambitious rewrite of Service Contract Act regulations, which cut back a "prevailing wage" requirement on federal contracts for service workers, provoked such union resistance that it has apparently been shelved. So have proposed changes in child labor rules; these made sensible updates in work place rules, but would have allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to work late hours on school nights. This move pleased no one but the fast-food outlets and amusement parks.
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs -- the enforcer of affirmative action rules for federal contractors -- has been such a thorn in the side of business that pleasing that constituency should have been easy. But the proposed rollback of requirements for all but the very largest contractors offended top business leaders. They argued that the mass exemptions not only gave some very dynamic and prosperous businesses an unfair advantage, but would undo most of the progress made in eliminating discrimination in business. These rules have been in abeyance for almost a year.
In these cases and others, the major fault in the administration's approach was that it looked only at the savings the easier rules would mean to business and ignored the benefits to others that were the purpose of the laws that the rules carried out. Ignoring costs was the weak spot of earlier regulators. Ignoring benefits and losing all sense of balance may be the downfall of the new wave of rulemakers.