GAO gears up for regulatory reviews

The General Accounting Office is gearing up for implementation of a new law requiring Congress' investigative and auditing agency to review new and potentially costly regulations issued by federal agencies.

The Truth in Regulating Act (S. 1198), which President Clinton signed last month, grew out of Republican concerns about the federal government's regulatory reach. The measure, however, had bipartisan supporters--including Sens. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.--and ultimately satisfied concerns raised by liberal observers.

Because the new law was signed on Oct. 17 and takes effect after 90 days, the GAO is bracing for January, when Congress can begin making requests for evaluations on measures that have estimated implementation costs that exceed $100 million.

"The law says that whenever an agency publishes an economically significant rule, the chairman or the ranking member of a congressional committee of jurisdiction in either chamber can request GAO to review the rule," said Curtis Copeland, assistant director of GAO's strategic issues team. "At that point, we would have to do an independent evaluation in 180 days."

One regulation that observers consider likely to receive a GAO assessment is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recently released rule on workplace ergonomics. The rule been praised by labor unions but criticized by business groups as unduly expensive and far-reaching. Its critics say it could cost businesses $10 billion.

One small-business lobbyist suggested that GAO analyses of Environmental Protection Agency restrictions, including caps on carbon dioxide emissions to reduce global warming, "would be the big kahuna."

The law does not ask GAO to do new analyses of the regulations from scratch. Instead, GAO specialists are asked to look over the regulatory agency's own numbers and determine whether their assumptions and calculations are justified.

The law asks the GAO to consider the potential benefits of the regulation, its costs, any alternative approaches, and the regulation's impact on a variety of other issues, including small businesses and the principles of federalism.

Copeland said Congress took the GAO's institutional limitations into account when writing the legislation. "We couldn't do a totally new study within 180 days," Copeland said.

The legislation's sponsors initially sought to create an independent agency to conduct the reviews, but later versions of the bill handed that power to the GAO.

For now, Copeland said, the GAO is planning to have a "locus of responsibility, probably in our advanced research and methods group," but he added that individual GAO staffers with expertise in the pertinent policy areas would be involved in the assessments as well.

The new law establishes a three-year pilot project under which GAO will conduct the reviews, as long as Congress appropriates $5.2 million in funding. According to the law, if Congress fails to fund the program, the GAO does not have to perform the assessments.

Copeland noted that the Truth in Regulating Act was intended in part to bolster provisions of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement and Fairness Act of 1996 that give Congress the authority to rein in regulatory agencies.

Though those powers have rarely been used, the GAO studies will provide independent technical analyses to help congressional overseers make such decisions, Copeland said.

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