Politics and Regulation

Timothy B. Clark

Are career officials and political appointees in federal agencies squaring off to do battle these days, as our cover image suggests? Certainly tensions have been running high-and the political cadre has been absorbing a lot of blows.

The toppling of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was viewed as just desserts by military officers whose professional judgment he had challenged. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several political aides may be going down for the count, having ignored career lawyers' views on important issues and politicized the administration of justice.

Less visible but no less important have been continuing tensions on issues of regulation. Republican administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan's have made it a point to keep regulation in check. After Reagan established the Task Force on Regulatory Relief in 1981, the power to curb major regulations on environment, health, safety, consumer protection and other issues migrated squarely to the White House. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has long had the controversial job of subjecting rules to the political litmus test.

The Bush administration has chosen "reluctant regulators" to run important agencies, people who follow the Republican approach: Less is more. Thus the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, declined to regulate carbon dioxide in auto emissions, or to force factories and power plants to reduce pollution as they renovated or expanded. EPA was rebuked by the Supreme Court on these policies in April. The court held that the agency could not ignore its duty to regulate greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming unless it could provide valid scientific justification.

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has similarly taken a hands-off view of its worker-protection responsibilities. During Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao's six-year regime, it has issued only one major safety rule and one significant health standard-the latter after a court order. The agency's refusal to act on documented hazards was the subject of a report in The New York Times on April 25. Then there's the case of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie A. MacDonald, who breezily rewrote Fish and Wildlife Service scientists' reports, and leaked documents to lobbyists. She resigned April 30 in the wake of a devastating report from Interior's inspector general.

Suppression of scientists' research is not a new phenomenon for this administration. And despite all the controversy, more may be in store. As Karen Rutzick reports in our cover story, the president in January ordered every agency to have a political appointee in charge of its regulatory policy office. OMB's general counsel called this "a classic good-government measure that will make federal agencies more open and accountable."

Agency pros won't see it that way. They will not welcome this broader and deeper political control over work once left to civil servants and scientific experts. And so the fighters square off for more battles down the line.

Tim Signature
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