Government agencies are working around Congress to enact dozens of federal regulations backed by President Clinton before his administration draws to a close Jan. 20.
From an ergonomics rule to prevent workplace injuries to a proposal eliminating road building through many national forests, federal agencies are able to put into rule what Congress refuses to write into law, using their power to regulate.
These issues have been vigorously debated by both Democrats and Republicans during this two-year congressional session. And despite reports from Senate aides last week that an agreement has been reached to pass ergonomics legislation, federal officials are prepared to push through these and other rules with or without action from the Republican-led Congress.
Informal discussions on an ergonomics standard continue between agencies, said Charles N. Jeffress, administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“We expect that [the Office of Management and Budget] will be able to complete its work in time for OSHA to issue a final rule before the end of the year,” Mr. Jeffress said.
The Forest Service is prepared to issue its decision on allowing future road construction through more than 40 million acres of national forests in December, said spokeswoman Cindy Chojnacky.
Implementing rules and regulations independent of congressional action is a source of contention among many Capitol Hill lawmakers.
“All the Clinton-Gore regime wants is rules, rules, rules,” said Rep. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Republican Conference.
The Clinton administration also plans to use federal regulations to create an abbreviated patients’ bill of rights.
“We want to make sure people’s claims are responded to in a quicker fashion” by reducing required HMO response times from 90 days to 15 days, said an administration spokesman.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said regulation is a good start, but is “no substitute for passage of a strong effective patients’ bill of rights,” which Congress has been unable to pass.
“The Republican leadership needs to stop putting HMO profits ahead of protecting patients’ health and allow the Senate to vote on the House-passed Norwood-Dingell bill,” Mr. Kennedy said.
There is a pattern of federal regulations passing fast and furious during the last quarter of a president’s administration, said Jay Cochran, research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Mr. Cochran reviewed the past 14 presidential elections and said the volume of regulations jumps an average of 17 percent during the last quarter of a president’s final year, compared with those same months in non-election years.
The Carter administration holds the record for passing “midnight regulations,” Mr. Cochran said. The sheer number of regulations in the last quarter of the Carter administration three or four times higher than usual repeatedly delayed printing of the Federal Register, the official daily publication of new regulations.
However, the Clinton administration is set to topple that record by an estimated 2,000 Federal Register pages, Mr. Cochran said.
“If the forecast holds true for the current administration, it will be even higher because they did not pass as many regulations from 1993 to 1998,” Mr. Cochran said.
Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, said he has noticed a substantial increase in the number of “regulations the administration is pushing through to try and get around Congress.”
“We only expect it to get worse in the next few months,” Mr. Pombo said.
A bill passed by Congress recently gives key members of congressional committees the authority to request a General Accounting Office study of costs associated with new regulations. Mr. Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law.
The next president and his administration cannot eliminate the regulations with the stroke of a pen, said Angela Antonellia, directory of economic policy for the Heritage Foundation.
However, the rules can be reopened and modified, even reversed, so long as public notice and comment procedures set out in the Administrative Procedures Act are carefully followed, she said.
“Hopefully, on day one, President George W. Bush will reverse any untoward action,” said Pete Jeffries, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.