Monday, September 27, 2004

Agencies Postpone Issuing New Rules Until After Election

The New York Times
September 27, 2004
Agencies Postpone Issuing New Rules Until After Election

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 - After a case of mad cow disease surfaced in Washington State late last year, federal regulators vowed to move swiftly to adopt rules to reduce the risks of further problems and restore confidence in the nation's meat industry.

Some rules were adopted this year. But a few weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration, after heavy lobbying from the beef and feed industries, took steps to delay - and to the concern of food safety groups, possibly kill - completion of the most controversial and perhaps most expensive proposal for cattle companies.

That proposal would sharply restrict what could be included in animal feed. Shortly after the administration slowed its consideration of the rule, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association broke its nonpartisan tradition and endorsed President Bush for re-election.

The F.D.A. decision was part of a broader pattern.

In recent weeks, federal agencies across the vast Washington bureaucracy have delayed completion of a range of proposed regulations from food safety and the environment to corporate governance and telecommunications policy until after Election Day, when regulatory action may be more politically palatable.

The delays come after heavy lobbying by industry organizations, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the cattle and feed industries, the four regional Bell operating telephone companies, big health care providers and timber and mining interests.

Some groups have been making their case for regulations that would make it easier for miners and timber companies to develop forests, while others have been advocating wholesale telephone rate rules that could significantly increase prices to consumers. Many corporate executives, meanwhile, have been arguing against a proposal that would give shareholders the ability to remove directors of troubled companies.

Officials have decided to wait until after Election Day to respond to an appeals court decision that struck down rules that would make it easier for the largest media conglomerates to grow larger. And they are not expected to issue rules that will determine prescription rates and coverage under the new Medicare law until after the presidential election.

Both industry lobbyists and their critics say that the re-election of President Bush would probably lead to the adoption of some regulations favorable to industry and the rejection or watering down of others that industry considers objectionable. Consumer groups, environmental organizations and food safety experts, meanwhile, say that delays could lead to significantly weaker rules that could increase prices on some products, reduce safety and relax environmental protections.

While the delay of completing rules, known to lobbyists and policy makers as "slow rolling,'' is common in a campaign season, some environmental groups and consumer advocates say this year is different.

"Generally, regulatory submissions often get pushed off in election years,'' said Gene Kimmelman, a senior director of public policy at Consumers Union.

"What is unusual this time,'' he added, "is the clear pattern of holding back regulatory decisions that will benefit the largest industry players and will drive up prices and market place risks for consumers, ranging from telephones to drugs to the risks of contaminants of food. The pattern of slow rolling will ultimately benefit the largest players and hit consumers in the pocketbook.''

Administration officials have denied such consequences, although they acknowledge that they are generally inclined in each instance to take the least restrictive approach and that they have been sympathetic to the concerns of business interests. They also say that reducing regulations reduces costs to industry and, thus, leads to lower prices for consumers. The administration's critics say that although John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, has taken a different position on some of the regulations, electing him might not affect the outcome of some proposals because the Bush administration would have almost three months after Election Day to complete the rules.

"There could be a fire sale such as we've never seen post-election,'' said Marty Hayden, legislative director for Earthjustice, one of several environmental groups that is opposing a proposal to make it easier to build roads in millions of acres of forests. Last week, the administration announced that it was extending the comment period for the proposal so that the final regulation could not be adopted before Election Day.

Slow rolling takes place before a presidential election because it is an axiom of political life that agencies take no action that could give an issue to the opponents of the incumbent administration.

After an election, by contrast, agency work often accelerates, particularly in anticipation of a change in administration. Indeed, nearly four years ago, the Bush administration - in its first two hours in office - imposed a brief regulatory moratorium to take stock of the proposals that had been rushed through agencies in the final days of the Clinton administration.

While that rhythm to rule making is inevitable, some experts say that this year there are an unusually large number of controversial proposals, and that they reflect both the tightness in the polls and the strong industry ties to the White House. Those groups and others have prevailed upon policy makers to delay some decisions in the hopes of killing some proposals and relaxing some other rules after the election.

Blair Levin, a telecommunications analyst at Legg Mason who was a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission in the Clinton administration, said that in telecommunications policy, he "cannot recall a time when there were these many important things waiting to be acted on.''

He said he expected that final rules on wholesale telephone rates, which will be completed after the election, would result in price increases in the range of 15 percent for existing customers, as well as price increases for new customers.

Officials at several agencies said they had moved to reduce the profile of controversial rule makings as the presidential campaign moves into the home stretch.

"The president sets the focus right now,'' said Michael D. Gallagher, an assistant commerce secretary who heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. "That's the way it should be, and it's not for us to get into old battles. The president should drive the message and we should be reinforcing that. Hopefully we'll be able to do that for the next 60 days. After that, there's a very full plate of issues to be addressed.''