Hill Power Shift Forces Retreat on Spring Plans
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
See Comments at end of article
House Republicans have abandoned their effort to try to overturn dozens of federal regulations that were adopted in the final months of the Clinton administration, acknowledging that the balance of power on Capitol Hill has changed dramatically since the days when President Bush first came into office.
The Republicans’ loss of the Senate, coupled with the growing assertiveness by GOP moderates, has forced Republican leaders to back down, according to lawmakers and strategists. In an illustration of the changed landscape, 19 House Republicans on Friday joined 198 Democrats and one independent in voting to block the Bush administration from weakening stricter drinking water standards for arsenic proposed when Bill Clinton was in office.
Working with the White House, House Republicans last spring drew up a list of 45 regulations as possible targets as part of a broad assault on policies Clinton enacted before leaving office. The regulations on the list touched nearly every major area of government policy, including rules that imposed broader reporting requirements on workplace injuries for employers, defined a child as a fetus that is viable after birth, and compelled meatpackers to report their prices three times a day.
When he took office, President Bush placed a 60-day moratorium on all Clinton administration regulations that had not taken effect, a period that ran out in March. But House leaders had hoped to use the 1996 Congressional Review Act, which gave Congress more flexibility to reverse many of the Clinton rules. Under the law, Congress has 60 legislative days from when the rules were published in the Federal Register to scuttle anything short of an executive order. The clock ran out this month.
Congress used the power in March to reverse a workplace safety rule imposed by the Clinton administration, but GOP lawmakers acknowledged last week that they had given up on applying the review act to other Clinton rules.
"The wheels came off our effort to repeal rules when it became likely the Senate would change hands," explained Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who was charged with overseeing the project.
The decision underscores growing Republican concern about the party’s image on the environment – an area touched by many of the Clinton regulations on the GOP list. Mindful of opinion polls that suggest voters believe the Republicans are placing business interests ahead of the environment, GOP moderates in the House have grown wary of creating the appearance that they are unduly helping corporations at the public’s expense, especially as they head into next year’s mid-term elections.
According to GOP sources, several of the Clinton rules that Congress will now leave untouched concerned imposing new burdens on businesses operating in or near national parks. One subjected small air tour operators to Federal Aviation Administration requirements, effectively limiting the number of flights in national parks. Another required power plants to reduce emissions near national parks. A third restricted the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
In each case, sources said, Republicans decided they did not have the political clout to reverse the regulations.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said the move demonstrated that the Republicans are increasingly aware of how they may pay a political price for the Bush administration’s environmental policies. "They’re very nervous," Miller said. "There’s a constituency out there for the environment, and they’re engaged."
GOP pollster Glen Bolger noted it was particularly difficult to reverse policies affecting popular federal programs such as those governing national parks. "It’s a fight you can’t win, with votes you don’t have," Bolger said.
This shift has disappointed – but not surprised – some conservatives who had hoped Congress and the Bush administration would overhaul several of Clinton’s policy initiatives.
Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, noted that Bush and the Republicans came under a withering attack once the administration proposed altering the Clinton standards for arsenic levels in drinking water.
"It can be unpopular," Lieberman said. "Most regulations have a very laudable purpose, like protecting the environment or public health, and whether the rules actually serve that purpose can get lost in the debate."
But Republicans, noting their success in March at reversing the Clinton administration’s workplace safety rule, said they had established an important precedent that any executive regulation remains subject to congressional scrutiny. "We put a strong marker down with the ergonomics repeal," Blunt said. "Our desire is not to stop the agencies from doing their job, it’s to ensure that they’re doing it better."
The GOP’s effort to overturn specific regulations became more difficult even before the Democrats took control of the Senate last month, according to aides, because under Senate rules the chamber could put such proposals on a legislative fast track only until June 5. After that point, any senator could effectively block a floor vote on the issue by putting a legislative “hold” on the bill in question.
Randy Johnson, vice president for labor and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses recognize the political risks associated with attacking some of the Clinton administration’s rules. "It’s somewhat tough to go to Capitol Hill and say, ‘Let’s have a knock-down, drag-out fight,’ when you can go to the White House and get them to reopen the rule-making," Johnson said. "These are tough votes, that’s why you haven’t seen" them.
Johnson noted that the Bush administration has already suspended some of the rules that attracted the House Republicans’ attention this year, including the new standards for air conditioners and one that would force federal contractors to have ‘a satisfactory record of compliance’ with federal, state, local and foreign laws and regulations. Employers fear the regulation concerning federal contractors would be manipulated by unions to blacklist targeted companies from winning government projects.
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An email conversation forwarded to PIF about the above story:
A: "How ironic that GOP legislators are now claiming fear of being identified as anti-environment. My take on it is that if the administration really wanted to overturn some damaging rules, they should have started out focusing the ones that cripple REAL everyday rural American natural resource producing families. They could have made the damage done to rural communities and rural families a very high profile issue with real faces and real voices that would have made America think about what they are doing to these communities and themselves. But nooo…
"Starting out with the arsenic/water issue was a big mistake, because ARSENIC is such a panic inducing buzz word. Winning the ergonomics issue will only be spun into the same old GOP protecting big business image.
"Rural American communities had some hope for this administration, and have been waiting patiently through all the excuse-making, for this administration to actually do something positive for us, which translates to doing something positive for the natural resource infrastructure of this country. Yet here we sit, still being picked off one by one and the only cavalry that has ridden in to help us is the one comprised of mounted farmers at Klamath Falls. The token water release in Klamath Falls simply proves to rural people that this administration handles us like any other PR problem when we finally do get some national attention for our issues.
"This administration had a grand opportunity to expose to the American public the Clinton administration’s sleazy rape and betrayal of the rural communities which have fed and sheltered them since this country’s founding. They could have put real faces of real families and children suffering on the issues and finally prick urban America’s conscience.
"They did not. They ignored our pleas for our communities and our children’s futures, and our warnings about the disintegration of our nation’s natural resource infrastructure, the threat that poses national security, and the erosion of national sovereignty the current trend in environmental management poses. They ignored us for their own issues, they blew it and fumbled the ball, and in so doing, have further imperiled this nation.
"That leaves rural America knowing what we have really known in our hearts all along. It’s up to us to save America, and in reality, it’s up to us to save the Earth for humanity."
B: “Good Job”
A: “I’m sure it’ll tick some folks off, but it’s true.”
B: “I have been in contact with the White house over our issues and it is hard to believe the naivete I receive from those ‘In the Know.’ I am sorry but they all need classes to become better informed as to what is transpiring today.
“When I told one leading Republican that Ted Turner funded the Ruckus Society and Earth First I was met with”NO WAY.” All I could think without saying (it) was – you(‘re) really stupid”