WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- A little-known arm of the executive branch of government headed by Vice President Dan Quayle is causing increased concern among Democratic members of Congress over the secrecy of its operations and its unaccountability.
The President's Council on Competitiveness is accused by legislators of lowering national environmental, public health and worker safety standards, including some actions that could pose a threat to Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.
When committees in both the Senate and the House held hearings last week on the council's operations, council staff -- citing executive privilege -- refused to testify to either panel. They have also rejected requests under the Freedom of Information Act from consumer and environmental groups for information on their activities.
The council is made up of the secretary of the treasury, the attorney general, the secretary of commerce, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the White House chief of staff. It is staffed by the vice president's private staff.
It has the power to review regulations issued by federal agencies. Critics accuse it of operating largely in favor of big business and against the interests of the consumer.
They say it has moved to open half of the nation's wetlands to development, has put the 1990 Clean Air Act at risk and is undermining safety standards -- all by rewriting regulations behind closed doors.
Administration officials say the council, frequently referred to as the "Quayle Council," was created to make sure that regulations were imposed for the benefit of all at the least possible cost to the economy and jobs.
They point to last week's speeding up of drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration as an example of beneficial council-sponsored reduction of regulations. They estimated the speed-up could save up to 1 million lives by 2000.
But Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, is so disturbed by the council's involvement in drafting regulations that he introduced "sunshine" legislation earlier this month to open up the executive branch's system of regulatory review. That would require both the council and OMB to disclose the background of any proposed rule changes.
"To ignore the need for this legislation is to turn a blind eye toward how backdoor lobbying and behind-closed-doors deal-making can unfairly sway decision-makers, intimidate agency scientific and technical experts, and ultimately undermine the implementation of the law," Mr. Glenn said.
The sort of regulatory changes condemned by critics were aired at a hearing last week of the House subcommittee on health and the environment, which was looking into the council's alleged attempts to undermine the 1990 Clean Air Act.
The committee charged the council with making 100 weakening changes in proposed environmental permit rules, and with contributing to the Environmental Protection Agency's illegal failure to meet the Nov. 15 deadline set by Congress for 16 major actions required under the 1990 law.
The council, it said, urged changes in regulations that "corresponded exactly" to alterations sought by industrial groups, including the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association and the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.
William K. Reilly, EPA administrator, confirmed in the hearing that the Quayle council had directly overruled an EPA ban on the burning of lead batteries.
Another proposal from the Quayle council -- relaxation of emission controls on power plants -- would prevent Baltimore and seven other cities from reducing air pollution enough to meet the federal ozone standard, said a committee staff report.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the committee's chairman, said, "America's new clean air programs and, in important ways, the integrity of the legislative process itself, are placed at risk through the wantonly illegal activities of the White House Council on Competitiveness."
He accused the council of regarding itself as "beyond public accountability and beyond the law of the land," and of being "a domestic version of the Iran-contra operations of the National Security Council during the Reagan era."
What particularly bothers Linda Winter, a wetlands specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, is the council's proposed change in the definition of wetlands. The major change proposed deals with how wet land must be to be designated a wetland. It would require that the land be saturated with water at least 15 straight days during the growing season. Current regulations require only seven straight days.
If adopted, the new technical definition would deregulate about 50 million acres, about half of the current wetlands, and would have a major impact on the Chesapeake Bay, Ms. Winter said.
"We are losing our ability to bring back the bay, to increase the quality of the bay's water and wildlife habitat," she said, noting that the proposed changes were open for public comment until Dec. 14.
The Environmental Protection Agency has received 30,000 calls and letters to date, but refuses to disclose how many are for or against the council's proposed changes.
Another major indictment of the council was published in September in a joint study by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen's Congress Watch, a consumer and environmental advocacy group, and OMB Watch, a group that monitors executive branch activities.
The study charged the council with creating regulatory loopholes for industry ranging from easing emission controls on polluters to underming safety standards for workers in industries using formaldehyde.
The report said: "Because it acts in utter secrecy, the Quayle council has set itself up as a channel for improper industry influence in regulatory decision-making. If it continues to expand its operation, the nation's health and safety standards will be in tatters."
Nancy Watzman, co-author of the report, said, "People should know what the council is doing. It should not be these kind of murky things that we are finding out about later."
Bill Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, accused the council of "enormous secrecy," and said his organization had tried, under the Freedom Of Information Act, to obtain a statement of its mission, a list of its staff, and a breakdown of what regulations the council was working on.
"They denied all aspects of our FOIA request," he said. "That doesn't sound like a really open operation to me. It's a strictly pro-business effort."
Mr. Quayle was not available for comment.