Reg Reform Alliance Formed

Corporate America is hardly exuberant over the scaled-down regulatory reform bill that Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., introduced this fall. But a business coalition is starting to put some muscle behind the proposal, which is far less ambitious than legislation that died in the previous Congress.

Alliance USA--the name stands for the Alliance for Understandable, Sensible and Accountable Government Rules--is composed of 200 companies and trade groups, including the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The alliance has hired Washington lawyer Thomas M. Susman, a former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and a partner at the Boston-based law firm of Ropes & Gray, to help with the lobbying effort. The group will rely on Joel Malina and others at the Wexler Group, a public affairs firm, to work on coalition-building. The Fratelli Group has been hired to handle public relations.

"We're just trying to show that the bill has broad-based, bipartisan support," said Ingolf N. Kiland Jr., Alliance USA's executive director and a senior Washington representative for the General Motors Corp. "If you look at the original co-sponsors, they run the gamut of political philosophies. We're not trying to dictate an agency's decision--we just want to know the rationale behind that decision."

The legislation, supporters say, will make regulators more accountable to the public and require agencies to use the best available scientific information before issuing new rules.

The group needs to overcome the business community's first impressions of the bill, which received a lukewarm reception from some lobbyists. In July, Charles J. DiBona, then the president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), told The New York Times, "The bill is so weak, it's probably not worth passing." The API still hasn't joined the coalition.

Nor has the conservative Small Business Survival Committee. But president Karen Kerrigan emphasized that her group supports the bill and added that it may develop its own grass-roots effort. The legislation "may not change the world overnight," she added, but it will help "build the foundation for other reforms down the road."

Alliance USA representatives acknowledge the need to show business backing for the Levin-Thompson bill. "Frankly, what we're trying to do is demonstrate that, yes, the business community is seriously behind this bill and that it is an important agenda item," said Eric Thomas of the Fratelli Group. "There are some businesses and industry groups that wish it would go a lot further, but it's a practical compromise."

The size of the coalition's budget has not yet been determined, Alliance USA spokesman Thomas said. At the moment, he said, the group is trying to build support in the home states of members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which will mark up the bill. The alliance is focusing on grass-roots efforts in key Senators' states. Regulatory reform legislation has yet to be introduced in the House.

Meanwhile, numerous environmental, labor and public health groups that oppose the regulatory changes are banding together as the Citizens for Sensible Safeguards. The coalition is being organized by OMB Watch, a liberal-leaning public-interest group.

Another high-profile opponent is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has termed the Senate legislation "a dream bill for business lobbyists and economists ... and a nightmare for those who care about the water they drink and the food they eat." The NRDC plans to spend $100,000 on the fight, including money for radio advertisements that ran this fall in Maine, Nebraska and North Dakota. The ads thank Senators from those states--Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., and Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine--for opposing the previous, more stringent bill and urge them to defeat the Thompson-Levin bill. The four are undecided.

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