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Americans have developed a fetish-like fixation on the "first hundred days" of incoming 'administrations in the era of promise-us-everything politics. They use the honeymoon period as a benchmark by which to judge a president's ability to get things done, steer the ship of state and fulfill campaign promises, no matter how ludicrous.
Regrettably little attention is therefore being paid to the final actions of the outgoing regime. President Bill Clinton and his cabinet secretaries, unleashed from the fear of popular back-rash and unchecked by an utterly cowed Congress, have been building their legacies backward by cramming into their last year all that they wouldn't dare do in their first seven. Virtually all of the 11th-hour agenda is being advanced through executive orders or regulatory aclions, cutting Congress out of the loop, in what has been a hallmark of the administration's unilateral approach to governance. Though future historians may note little about the first days of the Clinton era, save for some public flap over gays in the military; its final acts will almost certainly have a far more lasting impact on the nation (and greater perhaps than anything likely to transpire in the early days of the incoming administration, given the deadlocked political climate).
In a bow to environmentalists, for instance, the outgoing administration is in the process of "monumentalizing" much of the American West, possibly including the oil-rich Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, removing millions of acres of public land from resource development just as the nation is feeling the first pangs of an energy crisis. It is also poised to finalize a "roadless initiative" that will transform millions of acres of the West into de facto wilderness. Both actions execute neat end runs around the objections of Congress and the states most affected.
For champions of multiculturalism and diversity, the president has ordered that all federal offices provide translation services to beneficiaries who don't speak English, creating a logistical nightmare for government field offices. And throwing a bone to the animal rights crowd, the Department of Agriculture recently granted new protections to laboratory mice used in federal biomedical research, which some experts say may slow the evolution of new medicines.
The list of panders and political payoffs is long, but likely to grow even longer before the big top finally comes down on the Clinton era. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, recently provided to Congress a catalogue of 88 new rules or regulations it plans to finalize before the end of the administration, in what some see as a strategy to ram through controversial and costly new rules when people are distracted and Congress is in no position to object.
Many of the new rules are in response to court orders or statutory requirements, and some have been moving through the regulatory pipeline for years. But a majority of them —many with potentially huge costs and impacts upon industries and average citizens alike - have been purposely held up at the administration's discretion, to be unleashed in a last-minute torrent that will be difficult to reverse.
The EPA isn't the only federal agency holding its fire until the very last minute. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is moving to finalize new workplace ergonomic standards that business and industry say will mean expensive facility overhauls and reduce worker productivity. In all, the new ergonomic rules will add nearly 1,70o new pages to the Federal Register and cost industry (and indirectly, consumers) as much as $100 billion, according to some estimates.
The administration also is poised to limit competitive bidding for government contracts by favoring companies approved by Big Labor, and to set new energy and water efficiency standards for air conditioners and clothes washers that will cost consumers more while having a negligible impact on energy or water conservation.
While the Clinton administration isn't the first to employ the tactic — regulatory bubbles have occurred as other presidents were packing their bags, according to a recent study by George Mason University's Mercatus Center — it seems poised to shatter all midnight regulating records.
The Carter administration, just before yielding to the Reagan administration, holds the record for ramming through the greatest number of last-gasp laws (a quantity so great that the Federal R r couldn't publish them fast enough). But analysts at the Mercatus Cenler say Clinton is poised to topple that record by a wide margin.
The next president will have a limited ability to amend or even reverse the wave of last-minute executive orders and regulations, as Reagan did with some made by Carter. But in most cases — sadly for the people, who often pay dearly for Washington's follies — new presidents are usually too caught up in winning' headlines for their first hundred days to spend time and energy straightening out the messes made during the desperate legacy-building of a predecessor's last hundred days.