Start the presses

National | Bill Clinton rushes to add thousands of pages of regulations in his final days at the White House

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

Ah, the hazards facing the new president: A hostile press. A suspicious public. An evenly divided Senate. Carpal tunnel syndrome.

Conservatives are hoping George W. Bush develops a touch of the repetitive motion disorder that causes pain in the wrists of data-entry clerks and other workers who perform the same tasks over and over again. For Mr. Bush, the culprit would be signing his name hundreds of times in an effort to undo an avalanche of regulations and executive orders unleashed in President Clinton's final days in the Oval Office.

Not to worry, though. If symptoms develop, Mr. Bush is entitled to 90 days' leave with full benefits-compliments of the outgoing administration. Thanks to sweeping new "ergonomic standards" implemented just four days before the Bush inaugural, employers are now required to "fit the job to the worker," ensuring, for instance, that typists have wrist pads, adjustable-height chairs, and good lumbar support. Uncomfortable workers get government-mandated relief, and uncooperative corporations get fines up to $70,000 per occurrence.

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Mr. Clinton might want to make sure his successor gets a pen with a padded grip, just to be on the safe side.

The ergonomic regulations are hardly unique. In the waning weeks of the Clinton administration, agencies from OSHA to the EPA to the National Forest Service shifted into overdrive, churning out an estimated 30,000 pages of new regulations in 90 days. With industry groups estimating that the ergonomic regulations alone will cost $40 billion a year or more, the end of the Clinton era could go down as the most expensive 90 days in history.

"Many regulations are simply invisible forms of taxation," said Ed Hudgins, director of regulatory affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "When the government takes money directly out of your pocket, at least you know what's happening, and you can oppose it politically or take steps to lower your taxes. But regulatory costs are invisible."

H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis agreed: "Regulations cost the economy more than $700 billion a year. That's more than we spend on any budget item, other than Medicare, Social Security, and defense.... It works out to $7,000 per household. That's the extra price of goods and services that every household pays without even knowing it. Your car is more expensive because of government regulations. Your air conditioner is more expensive. Your doctor's bill is more expensive. People should ask themselves what they could do with an extra $7,000 a year."

To many critics, the implementation process for the new regulations was almost as obscene as their cost. Rules that had been subjected to years of careful study and debate were suddenly rammed through the regulatory machinery. Ergonomic standards, for instance, had been in development for nearly a decade when Clinton appointees at OSHA rushed them through the final stages of the regulatory process, just before the changing of the guard in Washington. Several business groups have already filed suit in federal court, charging that OSHA overstepped its statutory bounds by mandating compensation levels well above those for other types of workers' comp claims.

It's hardly novel for outgoing presidents to step up their activity before turning out the lights. On Jimmy Carter's last day in office, the Federal Register, a daily compendium of new rules from executive agencies, was three times its normal size, thanks to a rash of last-minute regulations on everything from strip-mining to Brussels sprouts. With lame-duck regulators working literally around-the-clock, the Carter administration's legacy earned a nickname among exasperated Republicans: midnight regulations.

But Mr. Carter's longstanding record is about to be broken. "While the rush to finalize a spate of new regulations is a tradition whenever an administration transitions out, as with so many other things, [the Clinton] administration has far surpassed the wasteful activities of its predecessors," noted Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog group. The proof is in the numbers: Even Mr. Carter managed only 24,531 pages of last-minute rules.

All of which means that Mr. Bush, besides having to thread the congressional needle with his own agenda, also faces the daunting task of undoing Mr. Clinton's last-minute regulatory knot.

Take the Department of Labor, for instance. The new labor secretary, likely to be a foe of quotas and other group-based preferences, will inherit a month-old affirmative action rule championed by his predecessor, Alexis Herman. Under the new rule, any company doing business with the government must file an affirmative action plan with the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). Among the paperwork required: data on the sex, race, and ethnicity of every job applicant, plus statistics on minorities' compensation, promotions, and tenure. Companies whose affirmative action plans are deemed insufficient would lose their government contracts-a crippling blow to many mom-and-pop businesses that depend on their government work to remain profitable.


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