Having rallied unanimously against anti-environmental extremism in the House, the Senate is duty bound to stick by its moderate, bipartisan plan to curb excessive government regulation. A joint conference committee is supposed to reconcile House efforts to impose a temporary moratorium on new regulations with the Senate's proposal to give Congress a permanent legislative veto on federal rules over health, safety and pollution. But the differences are so great, so vital, that the more prudent Senate approach ought to prevail.
What is wrong with the House blueprint? Simply, that it would freeze pending federal regulations in place and thus put in limbo the latest efforts to protect the public from contaminated food, water and air, unsafe products and dangers in the workplace. Even Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., long a battler against Washington overreach, said the bill passed by Speaker Newt Gingrich's cohorts in the House was "fraught with danger." Of "far greater promise," he said, was the Senate idea of giving Congress power to review major regulations for 45 days before they take effect. Congressional rejection of pending proposals would be subject to presidential veto and legislative override.
The attempt by both houses to rein in federal regulators is but the first step toward needed reform. Also under consideration are moves to shift more regulatory powers to the states, or to base federal policing on common law rather than specific legal mandates or to subject pending regulations to more intense economic impact assessments.
Considerable evidence exists that 25 years after the first Earth Day was celebrated, much has been done to clean up the environment and protect the public. But along with greater federal regulation came greater federal intrusion into the conduct of private business and added costs for compliance, often estimated at $500 billion a year.
The result has been a storm of complaints from small businesses and private property owners plus a definite loss in the popularity of the environmental movement. A recent Times Mirror poll reported that 63 percent of the public thinks federal regulations do more harm than good. This mood helped fuel the vast conservative tide that swept the Republicans into control of Congress last November. It even has President Clinton saying, "We will stop playing 'Gotcha' with decent, honest business people who want to be good citizens."
Despite such rhetoric, the essential Democratic purpose is not to throttle federal efforts to protect the environment but to improve them and make them less vulnerable to political attack. This contrasts with the more destructive mood among House Republicans. Fortunately, Senate Republicans are adhering to the Founding Fathers' vision of their mission by resisting gung-ho Gingrichism. If they continue to work with Senate Democrats, the nation will be well served -- and protected.