by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Federal watchdog agencies tasked with protecting public health and safety have been virtually dormant under the George W. Bush administration, says a new report, which found the government has failed to complete more than 70 percent of its own regulatory agenda.
The report by OMB Watch, a Washington group that promotes government accountability, focuses on the activities of four key federal agencies over the last year: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Researchers say that in addition to a nearly glacial pace in passing new rules, the agencies have dropped dozens of proposed rules dating back as far as the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s.
For example, the EPA withdrew 25 agenda items in the last year -- most dealing with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act -- bringing the total abandoned under the Bush administration to 90.
One of the proposals would have required an 80 percent reduction in storm water discharges at construction sites, which spew an estimated 80 million tons of solids into U.S. waterways every year.
"The mere fact that they withdrew items is not what's so remarkable," said Robert Shull, the lead author of the report, released on Wednesday. "It's that huge chunks of the agenda have been dropped completely."
"We issued the report not because we are asking for a regulation for its own sake, but because it matters for people," he added.
This year, the FDA withdrew four agenda items, including one to create a tracking system that would notify patients who receive contaminated blood products, bringing its total of withdrawn items to 62.
And NHTSA withdrew 13 more items in 2004, bringing its total to 31. Of those, 23 were proposed by the Bill Clinton administration, two by the George H.W. Bush administration, and two had been on the agenda since the Reagan administration.
"It's like there's a complete disregard for anything a previous government deemed important," Shull said.
Finally, OSHA targeted two more items for removal in the last year, bringing its total number of withdrawals to 24. One was a proposal to protect workers from exposure to tuberculosis.
Shull told IPS that it was particularly telling that the agencies had largely shunned rules deemed "economically significant," meaning they would cost businesses $100 million a year or more to comply with.
In total, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has approved only 25 "economically significant" rules for the four agencies -- roughly half the number approved during each term of the Clinton administration and a third of those approved during the first Bush administration, the group says.
"We found that the administration continued its trend of issuing rules that are distorted to serve industry interests and therefore threaten to exacerbate the very problems they should be correcting," said the report, one of a series on this issue, titled "The Bush Regulatory Record: A Pattern of Failure."
Often, when rules finally were passed, they ended up running counter to the original goal.
For example, an OSHA rule intended to address the problem of muscular injuries at work -- of which there are 1.6 million in the U.S. annually, 500,000 serious enough that workers missed time on the job -- was technically "completed," but only because the agency eliminated the requirement that such injuries be reported separately.
And an auto safety database meant to protect consumers, mandated by Congress after faulty Bridgestone/Firestone tires were blamed for more than 100 deaths in 2000, was finally created, but the NHTSA's rule keeps it secret and completely unavailable to the public.
"Since 2001, key regulatory plans have been abandoned, and those few major rules that have been undertaken favour corporate over public interests," said Gary Bass, OMB Watch executive director. "Statistics show a pattern of neglect, but not how the few rules being done decidedly favour industry."
One of the most controversial regulatory moves has been an amendment of the so-called "New Source Review," which forced ageing power plants and factories to install cutting edge pollution control technology when they increased their output or made other major changes.
Under changes proposed by the EPA and the Bush administration as part of its "clear skies initiative," as many as 50 percent fewer facilities would be required to install modern air pollution controls. A legal challenge has thus far prevented the new rules from going into effect.
The original rule was also not well-defined, the group notes, allowing power plants to "conduct extensive upgrades of older facilities and avoid compliance with more stringent anti-pollution measures."
"A rule completed in this agenda period would have authorised such questionably legal practices by expanding the definition of 'routine maintenance' to permit older polluting power plants to continue avoiding up-to-date pollution regulations while extensively upgrading their facilities," the report says.
OMB Watch proposes a number of remedies to the problem. First, the group says that federal agencies should be required to disentangle rulemakings from the other items in the Unified Agenda, a semi-annual publication that lists regulatory priorities and updates the status of earlier agenda items.
And they should be required to count withdrawn items separately from completed actions. "The decision to abandon work altogether on an item is so different from the issuance of a final rule that the two do not belong together under the same heading, much less as though all were 'completed'," the group notes.
Most importantly, regulators should make the process more accessible to the public by clearly explaining the public need to be served by a rule, and the reasons for any withdrawals.
"The people deserve more," Shull said.
September 21, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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