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2008-11-13

Bush Admin Pushes Through Last-Minute Deregulation that May Be Hard to Undo

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Matthew Madia, regulatory policy analyst at OMB Watch, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

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The Bush administration is quietly trying to push through a wide array of federal regulations before President Bush leaves office in January. Up to ninety proposed regulations could be finalized, many of which would weaken government rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment. We speak to Matthew Madia of the watchdog group OMB Watch. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the media focuses on President-elect Obama and the transition of power here in Washington, the Bush administration is quietly trying to push through a wide array of federal regulations before President Bush leaves office in January.

Up to ninety proposed regulations could be finalized by the outgoing administration, many of which would weaken government rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment. According to the Washington Post, the new rules would be among the most controversial deregulatory steps of the Bush era. They include rules that could weaken workplace safety protections, allow local police to spy in the so-called “war on terror” and make it easier for federal agencies to ignore the Endangered Species Act.

While it’s nothing new for outgoing administrations to try and enact these so-called "midnight regulations," the Bush administration has accelerated the process to ensure the changes it wants will be finalized by November 22nd. That’s sixty days before the next administration takes control. Most federal rules go into effect sixty days after they’ve been finalized, and it would be a major bureaucratic undertaking for the Obama administration to reverse federal rules already in effect.

Matthew Madia is a regulatory policy analyst at OMB Watch, which is a watchdog group here in Washington, D.C.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MATTHEW MADIA: Hi, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. So, talk about exactly what’s happening, what this date is, to begin with, the November 22nd, and how unusual this is.

MATTHEW MADIA: Yeah. In order for a rule to — in order for the Bush administration to really tie the hands of the Obama administration, they need to make sure that not only are all these rules final, but they’re in effect. And by law, an agency needs to wait either thirty or sixty days — as you said, in most cases, sixty days — before a rule takes effect. So if a rule’s not effective by January 20th, then the Obama administration could come in and suspend the rule. So what the Bush administration is trying to do is make sure that doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what these rules are that the Bush administration is trying to push through. And how unusual is it? I mean, did Clinton do this before Bush?

MATTHEW MADIA: The rules really cover a broad array of topics. One rule could make it harder for employees to claim leave when they’re sick or when a family member is sick. A lot of the rules would affect the environment. One makes it easier for mining companies to dump the waste for mountaintop mining into rivers and streams. Some of the rules affect traffic safety. One would allow truck drivers to drive for longer, for longer consecutive hours, and that puts both the truck driver at risk and the motorists at risk.

So, we see a lot of rules mostly rolling back existing requirements on industry, not in the name of job creation or in the name of increased competitiveness, just sort of to remove that government oversight, to widen the gap between government and business. And it could allow businesses to pollute more or to infringe upon their employees’ rights.

As you said, this is not unusual. The Clinton administration did do — we did see this kind of flurry of activity. But what’s different is what we talked about earlier, that the Bush administration really wants to get all this through by the end of November so that the Obama administration can’t undo it.

AMY GOODMAN: Continue with the rules that you think are the most significant that are being pushed through now.

MATTHEW MADIA: Yeah, a couple other ones on the environment. One, you mentioned the Endangered Species Act. This would essentially allow the government to approve big development projects on federal lands without adequately considering the effects on endangered species. They’re required to do that by the Endangered Species Act, but the rule would eliminate that existing requirement. Another rule on the environment would allow power companies to build polluting facilities near national parks. Currently there’s lots of restrictions on that. This would end those restrictions, and we’d see another big increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another rule would require mandatory drug and alcohol testing for miners. This is something the mining industry has been pushing for for a long time. The mining union opposes it and rightfully thinks that it’s an unnecessary infringement.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking right now about these midnight regulations and talking about how many are being pushed through. Who are the forces behind this?

MATTHEW MADIA: It’s everyone inside the Bush administration, all the senior political officials that we’ve come to know and love these last eight years. In some cases, we think the White House is making a push for these things, and in other cases, it’s just coming from within federal agencies. But one of the real problems is there’s not a whole lot of transparency in this area, so sometimes we don’t — we simply don’t know who the real architects of some of these deregulatory actions are.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think can be done? I mean, this is in their right, right, to do this?

MATTHEW MADIA: Well, absolutely. And unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of preventative action that we can take. All these rules had public comment periods, which are now closed. Many of them received overwhelmingly negative comments. The Endangered Species Act rule received about 300,000 comments, most of them negative.

But what we can do is hope that they’re overturned in the new year. Even if the Obama administration can’t do anything, the new Congress, when they come back in January, will have an opportunity to take a look at these rules. They’ll have sixty session days, under something called the Congressional Review Act, to determine which rules they think are the worst, and they’ll be able to introduce a resolution to disapprove these rules. And if that’s passed by both houses and signed by the President, then it’ll be like the rules never came into effect at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can there be some kind of pressure that’s brought to prevent this from happening, some kind of deal-making or negotiations that go on?

MATTHEW MADIA: Well, I don’t think — I don’t think that the Bush administration would respond much to that now to sort of stop these rules before they come. Certainly, I think the pressure being brought by a lot of the news coverage — the public is very concerned about this. We’ve seen that. OMB Watch has seen that in the responses that we’re getting to some of these issues. So, if people can contact their congressmen in the new year and tell them about this Congressional Review Act and why it’s important to undo some of these rules, I think we could see some progress made in 2009.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain further the administration’s proposal to change the Family and Medical Leave Act?

MATTHEW MADIA: Yeah, basically, what this does is, it’s a bunch of different requirements, or more accurately, it’s rolling back existing requirements that could make it more difficult for employees to claim leave. One of them would make it harder for an employee to use sick time or vacation time when they’re claming leave. This leave is unpaid. But currently, an employee can use their existing time so that they can take their leave without having to suffer the economic consequences.

Another particularly concerning part is the rule would allow an employer to contact someone’s healthcare provider directly. And this obviously raises lots of — lots of privacy concerns. So this is something that we see the industry lobbyists here in Washington pushing for, and they’re kind of getting what they want, and it’s going to affect employees in a negative way.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of abortion being taking on through these regulations?

MATTHEW MADIA: Yeah, there is one rule from the Department of Health and Human Services that sort of uses the strings of federal funding to impose the administration’s ideological views on reproductive health rights. The rule would require healthcare providers that receive federal funding to have some sort of process in place if one of their employees objects on moral or religious grounds to abortion or contraception or whatever it is. If they don’t have that process in place to allow their employees to deny people coverage in those areas, then they could risk losing their federal funding.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matthew Madia, I want to thank you very much for being with us. He is with the organization, here in Washington, D.C., OMB Watch, a watchdog group in the nation’s capital.

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