A Dukakis Opportunity: George Bush's Regulatory Flop

Article excerpt

Then Ronald Reagan finally attempted to answer the question "Where was George?" he proudly told the Republican National Convention that George had "headed up the task force that eliminated . . . regulations." The next day Michael Dukakis could have seized on this hollow boast. For while Republicans love to exploit the abstraction of "regulation," Dukakis should be running hard against the reality of George Bush sabotaging one life-saving law after another.

One of the President's first acts after taking office was to create the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief chaired by Bush -to overhaul all the regulatory agencies Reagan had denounced for two decades as threats to personal freedom and econoniic growth. Murray Weidenbaum, an economic adviser to the President at the time, offered the antiregulation war cry: Don't just do something, stand there.

Dutifully, George Bush did precisely that. Now, as he campaigns for the White House invoking a "kinder, gentler nation," his Democratic opponent ought to be reminding voters how the Bush task force's assault on health standards have hurt children:

In the late 1970s, a brand of infant formula disabled thousands of babies because it lacked chloride, a mineral essential to mental and physical growth. As a result, in 1980 Congress passed the Infant Formula Act. Yet the Regulatory Relief Task Force delayed mandatory minimum nutrition standards for infant formula for fifteen months, until a second formula scandal forced its hand. Only then did it release weak rules, which protected not infants but the formula industry.

The task force rejected the advice of government scientists that it warn parents of the correlation between aspirin and Reyes syndrome in children, a sometimes fatal condition striking the liver and brain. When Richard Schweiker, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, at last proposed that warning labels be put on aspirin bottles in 1982, industry appeals to the White House killed the plan, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation. Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen's Health Research Group estimates that the unlabeled aspirin bottles could cause hundreds of deaths and countless more injuries annually.

If Bush can run against furloughed felon Willie Horton, why isn't Dukakis running TV spots showing children, retarded because of deficient infant formula? Horton is a false measure of street crime, but these children are a real measure of suite crime.

Like so many initiatives in Reagan's "popcorn presidency," the idea of deregulation contained just a kernel of truth and a lot of hot air. The kernel was that regulation poorly carried out can waste money; the hot air was to assume that it is always poorly carried out. In fact, health and safety regulations usually save lives and dollars by deterring corporate abuse, which is why they were established in the first place. A 1980 survey of the economic literature by the Corporate Accountability Research Group found that the potential benefits of life-saving regulation total $226 billion, versus Murray Weidenbaum's guesstimate that regulatory costs add up to $31.4 billion.

That's why Bush's effort crashed headlong into a brick wall of interested constituencies - not "special interests," but private citizens and institutions who want government to protect them from unnecessary hazards and risks. While Americans instinctively recoil ftom the Orwellian image of big government, they also deeply believe in laws and regulations that preserve their drinking water, ban dangerous drugs, reduce workplace injuries and deter price-fixing.

As a result, the Administration failed to push through Congress a single major change in regulatory law, failed to eliminate the Consumer Product Safety Commission (C.P.S.C.), failed to gut the Clean Air Act, failed to upend the Delaney clause prohibiting carcinogens in food and suffered a stunning 9-0 Supreme Court defeat when it tried to eliminate a Carter Administration standard requiring "passive restraints" (air bags) in automobiles. …