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Riding Herd on Regulation

CONGRESSIONAL enactment of laws regulating business, such as safety and environmental statutes, is just the beginning of the process by which government imposes standards and obligations - and costs - on enterprise.

It then falls to an army of economists, scientists, lawyers, and other specialists in the federal departments and agencies to draft the detailed rules by which the laws will be applied. Some 122,000 federal employees are currently engaged in writing about 4,900 regulations under authority delegated by Congress.

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Since the Ford years, presidents - Democrat Jimmy Carter as well as Republicans - have sought to institute centralized oversight of this sprawling regulatory apparatus. Their objectives have been to lessen inflation, improve competitiveness, and standardize regulations.

And, from the start, Congress has resisted. Part of the fight has been over turf; some members of Congress regard White House activism in the regulatory process as an unconstitutional breach of separation of powers. Differences have also been ideological, though; congressional Democrats have complained that the executive branch skews the regulatory process in favor of business.

Present congressional attacks on the White House Council on Competitiveness should be considered in this light. The council, comprised of President Bush's top economic-policy advisers and chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, was created in 1989 to minimize regulatory costs on businesses that could impede American competitiveness.

The council has weighed in - and some observers say has had significant influence - on regulations involving the Clean Air Act, wetlands protection, waste recycling, and medical-drug testing, among others.

But critics like Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Henry Waxman contend that:

* The council is a "back door" through which business special interests can undermine the regulatory process;

* By keeping its contacts and discussions secret under executive privilege, the council violates federal openness standards applicable to regulatory agencies;

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* Scientific and technical advice on which the council has relied is suspect; and

* Council and staff members have had conflicts of interest.

Such allegations cannot be taken lightly, and the current and planned congressional investigations into them may be useful, provided they aren't just part of a power struggle between branches. A former Carter aide notes, however, that members of Congress have been making similar charges about regulatory oversight for at least 15 years.

Some process of regulatory management by the executive branch surely is needed, though people can debate the proper oversight procedures. The Quayle council, however, has been unduly secretive about its actions. More sunshine in the process would heighten public confidence in the council's performance.

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