Bush government, Bush rules

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, January 1, 2002 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — It was a classic stealth maneuver — and it worked. Two days after Christmas, with President Bush at his Texas ranch and most of official Washington on vacation, the White House announced the rejection of regulations that would have barred companies which repeatedly violate environmental and workplace standards from receiving government contracts.

Few in the press noticed, and those papers that printed anything about the decision buried the stories on inside pages. But this was no trivial matter. A congressional report had found that in one recent year, the federal government had awarded $38 billion in contracts to at least 261 corporations operating unsafe or unhealthy work sites. The regulations Bush killed were designed to stop that.

This is a classic example of the difference between the parties. These particular rules were issued at the very end of the Clinton administration, after being published in draft form 18 months earlier. Former Vice President Al Gore had publicly promised organized labor he would see that they were finished before he left that office.

Business opposed them, and Bush suspended them barely two months after he moved in, finally killing them last week. The move was a companion to the earlier 2001 action by the House and Senate, both then controlled by the Republicans, in setting aside Clinton administration regulations on ergonomics, designed to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries. The Chamber of Commerce and similar groups led the fight to spike them, too.

When I wrote about that action last March, I erred in saying Congress could have rewritten the rules that business found objectionable, instead of killing the whole package. Business lawyers later convinced me that would have been virtually impossible.

But when the ergonomics rules were killed, the administration promised that new, "more reasonable" regulations would be forthcoming. A phone call to the Labor Department last week elicited the information that no new regulations have been issued and no one could say when they will be.

That is the game: Kill the rules you don’t like quickly and quietly, then take your sweet time writing new ones. Don’t worry about how many strained backs or stiff wrists people suffer in the meantime. And now, don’t worry if the companies that tolerate unsafe conditions are getting fat government contracts at the same time.

Here’s another example of why it makes a difference who is deciding how the massive power of the executive branch is wielded — one I also wrote about last year. Last Oct. 25, 30 Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center and shut down its operations. The center had opened five years earlier, after California voters approved a medical marijuana initiative. It served patients with doctors’ prescriptions to use marijuana to alleviate the pain and nausea associated with AIDS, cancer and other diseases.

The raid was perfectly legal; the Supreme Court has affirmed that federal anti-drug laws, which cover marijuana, pre-empt more permissive state laws or initiatives. But no one has stepped forward to explain how busting up a center operating with the full approval of the Los Angeles County sheriff and local officials became a law enforcement priority for the federal government barely six weeks after the terrorist attacks on this country.

Two months after the raid, no one has yet been charged with any crime by the U.S. attorney’s office. But the center remains inoperative, its former patients forced to seek relief in the black market.

The White House complains constantly about Congress’ irresponsibility — sometimes with good reason. But often it is Congress that sets the executive branch right. As I noted at the time, the Bush budget of last April included a batch of fiscally cosmetic but phony law enforcement cuts, including a wipeout of the $60 million grant to the Boys &Girls Clubs of America for programs in public housing projects and high-crime areas, strongly endorsed by local police. Congress restored almost all those cuts and raised the clubhouse appropriation to $70 million.

Last year, Bush urged Congress to pass a bankruptcy bill that would make it easier for credit card and auto loan companies to squeeze repayments out of people. Bills similar to one Clinton had vetoed passed both the House and Senate, but have been stuck in conference — in part because even the lobbyists were embarrassed to be pushing them when so many small businesses and individuals have been hammered by the recession and the aftershocks of Sept. 11.

Believe me, if Bush had been able to rewrite bankruptcy rules with a stroke of his pen, as he did with the contracting regulations, it would have happened by now.

Elections do make a difference.

David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.

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