Election results will influence the regulatory climate

Both presidential candidates have promised tough ethics and transparency rules, but in general McCain is likely to have a lighter regulatory touch than Democratic rival Obama.

National Journal
Editor's note: This article is excerpted from astory exploring how much of a difference the next president will be able to make in a number of policy areas.

The Bush era, which ushered in business-friendly federal regulation and enforcement, would end if Barack Obama wins in November and joins forces with a Democratic-controlled Congress, say advocates for organized labor and the business community, and proponents of transparent, accountable government.

John McCain, on the other hand, is perceived in all quarters as something of a wild card because of his Senate record and his mixed messages. Until recently a self-described deregulator, McCain has been showing a populist streak. He has exhibited uneven enthusiasms for the worries of Big Business, as well as the little guy, but experts think that his guiding philosophy as president would lean toward shrinking the size and reach of government. "I'm always for less regulation," McCain told The Wall Street Journal in March. "I'd like to see a lot of the unnecessary government regulations eliminated, not just a moratorium."

A business representative who asked not to be identified said, "From a business-community point of view, I think we could deal with McCain. I don't think we could deal with Obama."

Informed observers predict that McCain would not rubber-stamp the Bush administration's deregulatory instincts but nevertheless would come closer to maintaining the status quo than would his Democratic rival.

Obama's brief record in the Senate leaves even Democratic-leaning advocacy groups with questions about what to expect, especially if he inherits exploding deficits and declining revenues in a bleak economy. But members of the business community, looking at the former Clinton administration officials and lawmakers who are advising the senator from Illinois, see no mystery. They're betting that tough new regulations would be Obama's goal. And they shudder, especially about the prospect of new environmental regulations.

Regulatory policy in any new administration invites the imposition of "change," even with Congress on the sidelines or at loggerheads over new legislation. The executive branch has plenty of latitude in enforcing existing laws, depending on the druthers of the president and his appointees. Seismic policy swings throughout the regulatory agencies can be driven by White House edicts and tied to existing resources, however lean. Working in cooperation with a willing Congress, a president can adopt an aggressive regulatory posture, fueled by new laws and new appropriations, or the White House can opt to apply a light regulatory hand, as Bush has done.

On environmental and ethics-lobbying regulations, both Obama and McCain have pledged to get tough. Each has promised that his administration would deliver greater transparency, accountability, and competence. Both have said they see a need for ramped-up oversight. In the regulatory categories of labor, energy, consumer protections, use of science, land conservation, and executive secrecy, advocates generally expect Obama to cast himself as the anti-Bush.

Because Obama serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, "we would expect a strong commitment for [worker safety and health protections] and having the job-safety and health agencies be more aggressive," said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's longtime director of safety and health. For example, Obama has said he would reinstate the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's controversial ergonomics rule, would extend OSHA coverage to "all public employees," and would increase the agency's funds for enforcement and training.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a good-government group, predicted that Obama would quickly revoke Bush's pro-business executive order on regulatory review, which the Office of Management and Budget oversees, and tip the scales back toward the pro-regulatory regime that President Clinton adopted. Bass also suggests that the Democratic-led Congress could assist an Obama administration to clear-cut through the regulatory policies that Bush leaves behind. Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress could adopt a far-reaching and expedited resolution of disapproval, which Obama could sign to signal the arrival of a new sheriff in town. "If they coordinate," Bass said, "it probably could work."

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