For most of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about federal safety and environmental regulatory policy, we have been preoccupied over the past five months by one simple question: What are they going to do?
In this context, "they" are the people who make up the power structure in the Clinton Administration. After they unpack the boxes and put out the pictures of the family, what decisions are they going to make about government policy? How will EPA, OSHA, MSHA, NIOSH, and the rest of the government alphabet soup be different? At this point, we have some glimmer of the outline, but the details are far from clear.
We do know that the American people have been uneasy about the direction of domestic policy, and that President Clinton has been given an ill-defined mandate for change. He has promised an Administration that is activist in nature. That, in itself, could signal profound changes in how the federal government regulates safety and environmental affairs.
When President Reagan came into power 12 years ago, he brought a philosophical belief that government was fundamentally intrusive. Leave companies alone, he said, and let the market regulate success and failure. Controls on business activity such as EPA and OSHA regulations were seen as a hindrance to economic growth and job creation.
Democrats -- and their natural constituents among organized labor and environmentalists -- were strongly opposed to the Reagan philosophy. In their view, there were plenty of wrongs to right, and it was the responsibility of the government to step in and do something about them. When unions and environmentalists determined that the White House would not help them, they turned to state governments and the courts to try to achieve their aims.
With a divided government, action on major safety and environmental regulations and laws was slow at best. Even the Republican Administrations became divided as regulators at OSHA and EPA, under pressure from Congress and the public to address certain issues such as air pollution and bloodborne pathogens, fought with Executive Branch economists over the scope, costs, and even need for new standards.
The business community, while far from happy with every edict issuing from Washington during this period, at least had the comfort of operating in a friendly philosophical environment. It had ready …