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House Approves Sweeping Curbs on U.S. Regulations

March 01, 1995|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Embracing the most sweeping proposal in the GOP's anti-regulatory reform agenda, the House approved legislation Tuesday to make it more difficult for federal agencies to issue new health, safety and environmental regulations.

With 60 conservative Democrats once again deserting their more liberal leadership to vote with the Republican majority, the House voted, 286 to 141, to pass a bill that would require several major federal agencies to conduct formal risk assessments and cost-benefit studies before issuing expensive new rulings to implement environmental and health laws.

Republicans contend that compliance costs with federal regulations frequently have been out of proportion to the problems that the rules are meant to address. Citing examples of overzealous rule-making that costs businesses and taxpayers $430 billion a year, they said that the nation's regulatory "nightmare" is, in the words of Rep. Michael D. Crapo (R-Ida.), "crushing our economy and invading the lives of every American."

Both sides agreed that the risk assessment bill--which now faces an uphill course in the Senate--would have the effect of sharply cutting down on new government regulations by increasing the cost and complexity of the rule-making process for agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Other agencies whose rule-making procedures would be affected include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Labor Department's Mine, Safety and Health Administration, and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Transportation.

President Clinton already has hinted that he might veto the bill, which opponents decried as a frontal assault on 25 years of legislation intended to protect public health and safety and to clean up the environment.

Despite the legislation's easy passage in the House, it faces more formidable opposition in the Senate, where Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) already has criticized it as too restrictive. Senate legislation is still at the committee level.

"This bill," like a lot of the legislation the House is passing with great fanfare in the first 100 days of the Republican revolution, "is going to be toned down considerably in the Senate," predicted a senior GOP Senate aide.

In the House, however, the Republican majority passed the second and most far-reaching of its three main "contract with America" proposals aimed at pruning the federal government's power to regulate the private sector.

Last week, the House voted, 276 to 146, to freeze the enactment of regulations promulgated over the past three months until the end of the year. But the effect of the latest legislation, which formed the centerpiece of the regulatory reforms contained in the GOP campaign manifesto, is potentially more sweeping.

The legislation would oblige affected agencies to give cost considerations greater weight when crafting new regulations to implement both existing and future environmental and public safety laws.

Under the bill, all new regulations costing more than $25 million a year to implement would have to pass a complex series of scientific and economic tests designed to ensure that the benefits of any proposed rule justify its costs to the private sector.

Detailed "risk assessments" would also have to be performed to determine if a rule is really needed.

If, for example, the EPA wants to regulate exposure to a potentially hazardous chemical, it first would have to measure and quantify in statistical terms the risk that the chemical poses, then justify the regulation on cost-benefit grounds and finally show that all other alternatives are "less cost-effective" in dealing with the threat than the proposed regulation.

In cases where a regulation would cost more than $100 million a year to implement, the risk assessment study would also be subject to approval by a review panel whose members could include representatives of the industry or other entity being affected.

Although the legislation technically would apply only to new regulations, not existing ones, its standards for rule-making would supersede provisions in existing laws like the Clean Air Act, which stipulate that cost considerations cannot be used to compromise existing health-based standards when writing rules that protect public health.

Democrats, who tried to amend the legislation and narrow its scope, denounced these requirements as "a rollback of 25 years of environmental progress," in the words of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), one of the principal House architects of the Clean Air Act.

"What this bill is about is pulling the plug . . . pulling the plug on safety standards . . . and pulling the plug on environmental standards," added Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee.

But, said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), "we ought to at least understand what the cost to our society is and . . . what the benefits are" before the government issues new regulations.

In a statement issued Tuesday, EPA Administrator Carol Browner said her agency already analyzes risks before it writes regulations, but the Republican bill would undermine that effort "by elevating simplistic slogans to unworkable public policy."

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