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Comeuppance for Budget Bullies

February 25, 1990

The U.S. Supreme Court relieved the President's budget analysts of a bit of their power this week. It ruled that the White House Office of Management and Budget cannot block regulations adopted by other federal agencies just because obeying the new rules would theoretically add to the burden of paperwork in private business.

Union officials cheered the court's finding that the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act covers only reports made to government, not regulations that require companies to warn employees, for example, that their workplace might be dangerous. Business generally warned that the 7-2 ruling would bury American commerce under an avalanche of new regulations that the OMB had worked hard to slow down during the 1980s, but that argument sounds premature. The feared avalanche is something for Congress to deal with--if it materializes.

As a general rule, holding down paperwork is a useful goal. But the challenge to OMB in the case decided Wednesday (Dole vs. United Steelworkers) had to do with notification of employees about hazardous chemicals. In other words, it involved a specific, real danger and not just a general rule. According to one attorney involved in the case, OMB has blocked a number of warnings on drugs and chemicals over the years. This ruling should put an end to that shortsighted policy.

In the meantime, there will be quiet celebrations--if not actual dancing in the corridors--of federal offices all over Washington. A few may be cerebral, having to do with a legal victory based on the fine points of law. But more often they will be gloating over the comeuppance of a town bully.

Budget analysts probably started using the power of the purse to second-guess department heads before George Washington retired. They were encouraged by President Reagan to do even more of that, particularly on the question of federal regulation. Reagan wanted OMB to help him carry out a promise to get government off America's back. And it carried out that goal with an almost religious zeal.

The power of the purse, especially when it is used in negotiating budgets, will never disappear entirely, but the court was right to say that it cannot be used to thwart the power of law.

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