Gore pays price for backing reg reform

Gore pays price for backing reg reform

Regulatory reform, seemingly a legislative backwater of cost- benefit analyses and judicial review, has a way of seeping into presidential politics. As he was revving up his 1996 presidential bid, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole personally took charge of pending reg reform legislation. Dole was confident the issue would allow him to burnish his reputation as a can-do, presidential kind of guy.

That, of course, was before the White House, Senate Democrats, environmentalists and the unions conspired to translate reg reform into "roll back", as in rolling back all kinds of health and safety standards favored by the voting public. In the end, Dole could never get 60 votes to invoke cloture on a reg reform bill, and he was left to complain bitterly, during a nationally televised debate with President Clinton, about how the issue had been hijacked.

Now reg reform has made its first appearance in the 2000 campaign.

Vice President Al Gore last Monday passed the word to representatives of three major environmental groups that the administration was close to dropping its opposition to a reg reform measure put together by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. On Wednesday, OMB Director Jacob Lew wrote to Thompson that the latest version of the bill was acceptable.

Immediately, leading environmentalists warned that the green community's seal of approval in the 2000 presidential sweepstakes might be up for grabs. Gore, the heir apparent and the most prominent "green" politician in the field, was swiftly and fiercely pummeled.

"We are extremely angry about this," commented Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen. "This is not reform of government, it's rollback and 'deform' [of government]."

By backing the Thompson-Levin measure, Claybrook said: "Gore puts his relationship with the environmental community at risk. These groups have been working on this issue for 18 years. We fought Bob Dole on this, we fought Ronald Reagan on this. ... [Such legislation] is a declaration of war against all of us."

Declared the National Environmental Trust's Philip Clapp, "The Gore forces are missing how critical this issue is at the polling places."

Clapp pointed to a recent poll showing that a strong majority of voters in South Carolina, hardly a bastion of fuzzy- headed environmentalism, do not believe environmental rules are too stringent and would be inclined to vote against a candidate who worked to weaken them. The poll, Clapp pointed out, was conducted by Mark Mellman, Gore's personal pollster.

Toss in the displeasure of AFL-CIO officials, concerned that reg reform translates into weakened workplace safety rules, and Gore seems to have ticked off two core constituency groups.

Claybrook and Clapp both suggested Gore was attempting to "soften" the business community's hostility to his presidential candidacy, and both suggested he was on a fool's errand. "To imagine the Business Roundtable [for example] won't be supporting the 'anybody but Gore' candidate is just naive," Clapp argued.

"Most people would probably think he's trying to buy our vote," said Jennifer Litchman of the Business Roundtable. "[But] we think he's positioning himself as the pro-business candidate. He knows he has to court us, and this is a good way to test the waters."

Litchman cautioned that Gore and Big Business have not tied the knot just yet, observing, "Gore never seems to take the green lenses off his glasses."

And on the other side, some environmentalists conceded the administration had pushed positive changes into the McCain-Levin proposal.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who sought the Democratic nomination in 1992 and may do so again, last Thursday met with representatives of five major environmental groups and pledged to work with them in opposition to the reg bill, and also on global warming, another issue dear to Gore.

"Bob Kerrey is talking about making government more democratic, about providing more access," said Claybrook. "It's a very appealing approach, it's very appealing to the ... groups that have been doing this for a long time."

While Kerrey was not deeply involved in previous reg reform fights, the environmentalists who met with him were thrilled by his comment that there is "no need [for Democrats] to pick up a plank from the Republicans' Contract With America," according to Clapp. Claybrook noted that another Democrat, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, also has hinted at presidential ambitions and already has a track record as a foe of the type of reg reform now being contemplated.

Is all of this a real problem for Gore?

"Not at the moment," commented one source close to the Vice President. "[But] this does have the potential to pose serious problems. [The environment] is Al Gore's issue and you're not going to take it away from him. On the other hand, people could say if you can't trust him on the environment, what can you trust him on?"