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Every Which Way But Strict

The Bush administration’s quiet assault on environmental regulations

By Jennifer Hattam

Remember James Watt and Newt Gingrich? Ronald Reagan’s Interior secretary and the House speaker during the Clinton years were outspoken, ideological foes of government and friends of business, lightning rods whose high profiles helped rally opposition to their anti-environmental policies.

But John Graham keeps his head down, and that’s the way the Bush administration likes it. Graham runs the virtually unknown Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, the Bush administration’s go-to department for any business interested in weakening or rescinding federal rules. This year, Graham’s office is considering softening or jettisoning 316 regulations, including 65 issued by the EPA (more than any other federal agency). While government agencies aren’t bound to follow Graham’s guidance, his office can require extensive cost-benefit analyses and can bottle up existing and new rules indefinitely. The Bush administration’s overturning of a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and its weakening of air-conditioner efficiency standards both got their start in Graham’s office.

But there’s more than one way to kill a regulation. One of the Bush administration’s first acts was an order by Chief of Staff Andrew Card freezing 371 pending Clinton-era rules. When last year’s Congress failed to deliver on Bush’s proposals to greatly increase logging (ostensibly to prevent wildfires), the president got what he wanted through an administrative rule change, free of public scrutiny. Bush’s political appointees have crafted industry-friendly regulations with barely a notice. (In February, for example, the EPA drafted rules exempting chemical plants, pulp mills, auto factories, and steel mills from stringent air-pollution controls.) Enforcement has also quietly suffered: Under Bush, the average civil penalty levied by the EPA has dropped from $1.3 million to $600,000; the number of air-quality inspectors dropped by 12 percent from 2001 to 2002.

The White House hopes that the public won’t notice the obscure rule changes or the often-soporific doings of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. But if the administration is right, we’ll all pay. The regulatory office’s own number-crunching reveals that environmental, health, and safety regulations adopted in the past decade cost $38 billion to $44 billion per year, but yielded between $135 billion and $218 billion in benefits, a whopping return of 300 to 500 percent.

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