Review & Outlook
Father Knows Best
As commander in chief, George W. Bush now outranks his dad. But there are still things he might learn from the old man, which is something to think about on vacation in Crawford in between enjoying the sight of a Washington press corps enduring the 100-plus- degree West Texas heat. And by learning from his father we don't mean simply avoiding the same mistakes. To the contrary, next to winning the Gulf War, George I's most significant success may be the way he did it: By first making Congress vote for it -- or at least put its opposition on the record.
With the Democrats now releasing a new round of attack ads on everything from Medicare to the environment, there's a timely lesson here. Recall that when the White House announced two eminently sensible reviews of standards affecting drinking water and school lunches, the ad the Democratic National Committee settled on featured kiddies asking their mommies for arsenic in their water and salmonella in their cheeseburgers. Then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle put it this way: "Under FDR, all we had to fear was fear itself. Now we have to fear arsenic in our drinking water, pollutants in our air, drilling on our public lands, a rollback of women's rights and workers' rights and a return of crippling deficits."
Now, no politician can really be shocked to find his policies caricatured by his opponents, and this includes President Bush, today lampooned as a tool of the oil industry bent on raping the American wilderness and poisoning its water. In a democracy, however, the antidote to demagoguery is accountability. Unfortunately, that accountability has been undermined as contentious public issues have moved from the legislative process -- and the public debate that occasions -- to backroom regulation. In so doing, Congress is let almost completely off the hook. And the only way to move Senator Daschle and his allies out of this ideological sweet spot is to force them to do the one thing legislative demagogues hate most: vote.
Specifically, once President Bush arrives back from Texas, he might want to ask Congress for a yea or nay vote on every regulation whose annual economic costs exceed $100 million. That's the recommendation contained in the Competitive Enterprise Institute's recent release of the latest version of its study "10,000 Commandments: A Policymaker's Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State." Whatever else it did, you can bet that asking Congress to go on the record would be one surefire way to begin changing the tone in Washington.
Certainly the impact is undeniable. To date, President Bush has signed only 24 public bills into law for the first half of 2001. Against this there are 158 $100-million-plus regulations now working their way through the pipeline. Given that the impact of these $100-million-plus regulations is a recurring expense, some of these have the potential to morph into billion-dollar items before they've run their course. By subjecting these major regulations to the democratic process, the public would be far more informed about the impact of such proposals -- before rather than after they've passed.
The good news is that the basic mechanism is already in place. Among Ronald Reagan's first acts as President was an executive order that required the Office of Management and Budget to study the impact of all regulations before they could be approved. Bill Clinton modified this, by shifting the balance of power from OMB back to the agencies themselves and limiting the reviews to those regulations with an impact of $100 million or more. On top of this, the 1996 Congressional Review Act gives Congress a 60-day window to review any regulation.
All these are well and good, but the Achilles' heel is that they all still leave it up to Congress to decide whether to do anything or not. And Congress being Congress, it has little incentive to do so; the only time the Congressional Review Act has been invoked since its inception was over Mr. Clinton's proposed ergonomics regulations. "If you're a Member," says the Cato Institute's Wayne Crews, author of the CEI study, "you can stand up before the Sierra Club and say, 'I voted for the Clean Air Act Amendments.' Then you can walk across the street to the Chamber of Commerce and say, 'These damn agencies are out of control.'"
All the more reason for President Bush to try to inject some accountability into the system by sending each $100 million regulation up to Capitol Hill and asking for a joint sense of Congress resolution that would put all its members on record. Forcing Congress to vote, of course, does not guarantee a stop to bad regulations. Nor will it end political theatrics. But it does return responsibility to where it belongs, put our politicos on the record and at least forces them to bring these regulations through the front door rather than wink as they are snuck in the back.
Copyright © 2001 by The Wall Street Journal