The Bush campaign would like you to think this election is about taxes and character; the Gore campaign is focusing on the dangers of debt and the promise of expanded health insurance; and the various interest groups in Washington are pushing their own favorites--from abortion to gun control. But who wins might not make that much difference in what happens on any of these issues. Where the election could have the biggest impact is in how well the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and other federal regulatory agencies charged with making capitalism more humane, livable, and fair do their job. It comes down to this: Under the Democrats, the agencies would be likely to do pretty well, while under the Republicans, they could be crippled.
A few regulatory agencies were established during the Progressive Era and New Deal, but most of them were created between 1964 and 1975, and reached the zenith of their power in the mid-1970s. By the late 1970s, business had joined Republican conservatives in a powerful coalition to "deregulate" the economy. This coalition defeated the proposal for a consumer protection agency in 1978 and, in the 1980s, worked with the Reagan administration to roll back regulation. It did so partly by appointing regulatory opponents like James Miller to head the FTC. But, more important, it cut the budgets of these agencies so much that they no longer had the staff to carry out their responsibilities.
Some agencies like the EPA bounced back under the more moderate Bush administration and a Democratic Congress. Still more revived during the first two years of the Clinton administration. But when the Republicans won Congress in November 1994, the agencies once again found themselves fighting for survival. After the Democratic gains in the 1998 elections, the Clinton administration was able to win back some cuts from the prior four years, but most of the agencies remain less capable of carrying out their duties than they were in 1995 or even in 1975.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), founded in 1970, saw its budget increase steadily from 1975 to 1981, and its staffing--the key to enforcement--rise from 1975 to 1980. But during the Reagan years, it lost funding and people. Its staffing went from 2,951 in 1980 to 2,211 in 1987. Clinton increased spending on OSHA in the 1994 and 1995 fiscal-year budgets, but in fiscal year 1996, the Republican Congress forced the administration to agree to budget cuts and another reduction in staff. In the past two years, the administration has finally got the budget back up, but there are still fewer people working at OSHA in 2000 than there were in 1975, even as OSHA's job has become more complex and demanding.
The Republican Congress, working closely with business lobbyists, has also been able to prevent OSHA from protecting workers from new kinds of injuries. In August 1990, Bush's Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole pledged to take "the most effective steps necessary to address the problem of ergonomic hazards on an industry-wide basis." The Clinton administration promised to give new rules on ergonomics--the safe design of worker environments and implements--the highest priority. But when Republicans won the Congress, they introduced annual riders to stop OSHA from issuing a standard. They demanded scientific studies, and when the studies demonstrated the need for regulation, they demanded new studies. Finally, in October 1998, the administration won agreement from Republican leaders in Congress that OSHA could issue a proposed standard, and in November 1999, it did. This summer, however, 10 years after Dole called for a new standard, the Republican House and Senate have passed amendments to OSHA's appropriations requiring that it withdraw its ergonomics proposal.
The EPA, founded the same year as OSHA, also suffered during the Reagan years and under the Republican Congress. Republicans were willing to increase the EPA's overall budget, but not its enforcement budget. In 1995 the House called for cutting the EPA's enforcement budget in half, but the House and Senate agreed finally to a 20 percent cut. The House Republicans are still at it. According to the Environmental Working Group , the House passed a budget for fiscal year 2001 this June that would force the EPA to eliminate 3,000 inspections and 200 criminal investigations each year.
Congressional Republicans have also attached amendments and riders to the budget preventing the EPA from enforcing clean air and water standards. This summer, the House and Senate passed an amendment to the EPA's appropriations that would prevent it from requiring states to submit plans to clean up within 15 years waterways that don't meet the current standards of the Clean Water Act. The proposed House budget for the EPA would keep the EPA from investigating whether cities and states are in compliance with the new clean-air standards.
The FTC was established in 1914, but it only became an effective agency after legislation in 1975 expanded its purview and its enforcement powers. It is responsible for policing consumer fraud and, together with the Justice Department, enforcing the nation's antitrust laws. Its funding displays the same trajectory as the other agencies: It rose steadily from 1974 to 1978, and then plummeted in the Reagan years. In constant 1992 dollars, the FTC budget fell from $120 million in 1978 to $75 million in 1990. The Clinton administration increased funding for fiscal years 1994 and 1995, but the Republican Congress exacted cuts from 1996 to 1998. Even after increases during the past two years, the FTC budget is still only at the level it was in 1982.
Albert Foer of the American Antitrust Institute has broken down the resources and personnel that the FTC and the Justice Department's Antitrust Division have devoted to antitrust enforcement. The Reagan administration virtually abandoned antitrust enforcement. Staffing at the Justice Department fell from 982 in 1980 to 509 in 1989. The Clinton administration increased the staffing at both the Justice Department and the Competition Bureau of the FTC, but the total staff fell in 1996. Every year since then has been a battle. At the same time, the number of mergers that the FTC and Justice Department have to consider has skyrocketed--from 824 reported to the FTC in 1980 to 4,728 reported in 1998.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), established by the Wagner Act in 1935, oversees collective bargaining between labor and business. If it is understaffed, it can't adequately do its job. Its funding rose through the 1970s, fell during the Reagan years, picked up in the first two Clinton years, fell under the Gingrich Congress, and is now rising again. Last year, NLRB's budget increased by $22 million, to $206.5 million. But it has never recovered from the Reagan years. In 1980 it had 2,945 people working for it; by 1993, when Clinton took office, it had 2,086. It was down to 1,880 by 1998, and is now back to only 2,002.
Other agencies tell the same story. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) had 270 staff members in 1980 and was down to 229 by 1986. Its staffing was at 314 by 1995, but then fell to 296 in 1997. The overall budget of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has risen, but not the part devoted to enforcing compliance with regulations--which began falling sharply after 1994. In addition, Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, now want to deprive the FCC of its statutory authority to evaluate whether telecommunications mergers are in the "public interest." Congress increased the funding of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to speed up review of new products, but it did not increase the number of people who have to decide whether the drugs, after they are speedily released, are performing as promised. According to an article by Steven Pomper in The Washington Monthly, the FDA's "review team" contains 1,300 employees and its "safety team" only 72.
Over the past six years, the Clinton administration has used vetoes and Senate Democrats have used filibusters in order to fight off the most egregious riders, amendments, and cuts, but they have eventually had to compromise on budget numbers, rules, and even appointments. This year, for instance, in order to get Richard Holbrooke confirmed as UN ambassador, the administration was forced to accept Bradley Smith, who opposes any campaign finance regulation, for the Republican slot on the FEC.
There are two morals to this story. The first is political: When Democrats have controlled the White House and the Congress, the regulatory agencies have generally thrived. When Republicans have been in control, the agencies have suffered. The second moral is budgetary: Many of the cuts that the Republican Congress exacted from 1995 through 1997 and that laid the basis for the current surplus came from the regulatory agencies. It is as important to increase funding for them as it is to pump money into health or education. There is something daffy about jacking up funds for Medicare or cancer research while denying OSHA and the EPA the money they need to prevent injuries or illnesses.
Ralph Nader is running on the premise that there would be no difference between a Bush and a Gore presidency, but there is a stark difference on Nader's own signature issue of regulatory policies between the Democratic and Republican candidates. Gore's commitment to government regulation goes back to 1978, when, targeted by the Business Roundtable, he was one of the few southern Democrats to vote for a new consumer agency. While often criticized by environmental groups, Gore has been, over the years, a stalwart defender of the EPA. In the Senate, Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, was one of the principal opponents of the regulatory riders and amendments that Republicans tried to get through. Says Reece Rushing, a project coordinator with Citizens for Sensible Safeguards, a coalition of 300 labor and consumer groups that fought the riders, "In the Senate, Lieberman has been our main champion on these issues." Last year Lieberman filibustered a rider that would have blocked OSHA from proposing ergonomic standards. "He was very important on the whole regulatory reform debate," says Peg Seminario, the director of job safety and health for the AFL-CIO.
Bush, by contrast, appears far more conservative than his father on these issues. As Texas governor, he championed voluntary compliance with, rather than enforcement of, the state's environmental laws. He appointed a former lobbyist from the Texas Chemical Council to chair the Texas National Resource Conservation Commission. In contrast with prior Democratic and Republican governors, he refused to appoint labor union representatives to state boards that oversee workers' occupational standards. During his presidential campaign, he has trumpeted his support for "deregulation" in fundraising speeches, and he has relied on advisers hostile to regulation. Bush's main adviser on environmental regulation is Christopher DeMuth, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, who was responsible for regulatory reform in the Reagan administration's Office of Management and Budget. Bush's adviser on antitrust policy is Timothy J. Muris, who was the director of the FTC's Bureau of Competition during the Reagan administration. If Bush is elected, and if the Republicans retain control of the Congress, the nation's regulatory agencies will be in deep trouble. Anyone who cares about clean air and safe workplaces should keep that in mind next November. ¤
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