A Supreme Court decision striking down the use of the legislative veto does not affect the process of budget rescissions. An article Saturday may have left the impression that the decision would give the Office of Management and Budget a freer hand in rescinding funds appropriated by Congress, as well as in deferring the spending of such funds.
In ruling yesterday that a federal agency needs as much justification to undo a regulation as it did to issue it, the Supreme Court gave new ammunition to environmental, labor and consumer groups fighting deregulatory moves made in the early days of the Reagan administration.
The decision, which involved the Transportation Department's rescission of a rule requiring passive restraints in new cars, may have an impact on such issues as the relaxation of air pollution rules and change in wage standards for workers on federal construction projects.
But the ruling comes at a time when the administration's deregulatory fever has cooled, and executive branch officials are spending more time defending earlier decisions before judges than looking for new rules to revoke.
According to one Environmental Protection Agency attorney, the decision follows the trend of earlier court rulings on regulatory matters.
"The marching orders have been for a long time that an agency has wide freedom of action but has to have a good explanation for what it's doing and a rational analysis of it," said William Peterson, an attorney in EPA's general counsel's office who has monitored similar cases.
While attorneys for groups like Ralph Nader's Public Citizen rejoiced in what they viewed as a rebuke to the administration's deregulatory drive--described by one attorney as "quick and dirty deregulation"--administration officials tried to put a good face on the decision, portraying it as a partial victory.
They did this by focusing on the high court's rejection of one section of the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which said an agency needed greater justification for revoking a rule than it needed for imposing one.
Christopher DeMuth, the Office of Management and Budget official who serves as executive director of the Vice President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief, said in a prepared statement:
"The administration is gratified by the Supreme Court's unanimous decision to strike down the Court of Appeals judgment in this case. In so doing, the court has upheld the neutral principle of judicial review . . . that the same judicial standards should apply to the removal of regulatory controls from the economy as the imposition of new regulations."
C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the task force, said that the ruling "takes things back to the way we originally thought they were . . . . We were concerned about following procedures. There have been mistakes, but they are not generic. By and large, we've done things right."
However, most federal court rulings on the White House's deregulatory initiatives have gone against the administration, although many of those cases are still being appealed.
Among the challenges to early deregulatory efforts that have been successful, at least initially:
Some unions and the AFL-CIO sued the Labor Department over its decision to promulgate new, relaxed rules governing the wages paid to workers on federally financed construction projects. A U.S. District Court judge agreed with the unions on several issues, but said the department had justified its decision to redefine the term "prevailing wage." Both sides have appealed. AFL-CIO attorney Terry Yellig said that yesterday's Supreme Court decision should bolster his arguments.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the EPA over its move to relax air pollution standards by redefining what constitutes a "new source" of pollution. A U.S. appeals court overturned that decision. The Supreme Court agreed in late May to hear the administration's appeal.
Both regulations had been targeted for review and probable change by the vice president's task force, which flagged 34 regulations soon after President Reagan took office and dozens more over the next few months.
"They've slowed down deregulation, but this decision is going to make people more willing to challenge the administration," said Alan Morrison, an attorney for Public Citizen.
Morrison, the prevailing attorney in Thursday's Supreme Court decision overturning the legislative veto, added, "Like other things, this is a double-edged sword. If a more activist administration follows this one, it's going to be more difficult for them to overturn things, too."