Soft-Boiled Regs

Article excerpt

Back in the days when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) kept itself busy by drafting directives specifying the height of the nation's fire extinguishers and the width of its toilet seats, it was easy for voters to be taken in when Ronald Reagan bemoaned the total cost of all federal regulation - "all waste," as he once put it, "due to regulatory overkill." It was easy for them to chuckle when he took a lighter tack: "If the federal government had been around when the Creator was putting his hand to this state, Indiana wouldn't be here. It'd still be waiting for an environmental impact statement."

These days, though, it's hard to live with the consequences. Maybe fire extinguishers come in all shapes and sizes, but so do the tumors in kids who grow up near areas like the Brio refining site in Texas, where Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less interested in freeing the hand of the Creator than that of big business, settled for a face-lift rather than an aggressive cleanup of toxic wastes left by corporate polluters. In the late eighties, outrage over failures like Brio and the $500 billion S&L collapse revealed that Americans have a slightly more complicated view of regulation than Reagan may have thought: They might have wanted government off their own backs, but they sure as hell wanted it to stay on the backs of those who might steal their savings, wreck their health, or maim their kids.

In fact, it's astounding in retrospect that voters let Reagan get away with attacking all regulation, as though one could simply wipe the books clean. You don't have to be Ralph Nader to understand that people need rules. Just as laws define the bounds of society (you can't shoot your enemies), regulations define the bounds of the marketplace (you can't sell nuclear bombs). And just as police are supposed to nab criminals, regulators are supposed to nail violators of market rules.

In practice, these theoretical distinctions become meaningless. Whether you kill somebody by driving recklessly or by marketing a deadly drug, you should wind up in prison just the same. Somehow, though, as we all got tough on crime in the eighties, cops became pop culture heroes while regulators became pests - until one day Americans looked up and realized the Charles Keatings had eaten our lunch.

Maybe this explains why, when federal marshals seized 2,000 crates of Citrus Hill Fresh Choice orange juice, the crackdown was such big news, hyped by the networks and The New York Times. But while the administration has come down hard on the orange juice menace and gotten great publicity as a result, it is quietly letting much greater hazards go unchecked. Yes, there have been some tentative steps toward reregulation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has accelerated the implementation of rules to make light vans and trucks safer. OSHA and the EPA have taken more enforcement actions against the most blatant corporate crooks. The Federal Trade Commission is looking into business mergers more carefully. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally cracked down on the generic drug industry.

But such accomplishments have been piecemeal, lacking central direction. As Newsweek reported last year, after reading newspaper accounts of business fears over a possible new regulatory crackdown, Bush sent a note to John Sununu: What's going on? The free-market ideologues in the White House - in particular Sununu and Dan Quayle, operating through his Council on Competitiveness - have tried hard to undercut any push in the ranks toward reregulation. Indeed, the vaunted orange juice assault itself was less the result of regulators' concern for little kids than of a concerted lobbying effort by Citrus Hill's competitors. A look at some of the other deeds behind the words of this administration reveals that, when it comes to regulation in the Bush era, it's pretty much business as usual. …