Regulatory reform, a goal given fervent lip service by both major parties, is dangerously near a political dead end. Voters who see a need to protect health, safety and the environment while freeing the economy of unnecessary government rules and red tape will not be pleased -- nor should they.
In September 1993, Vice President Al Gore presented President Clinton with stacks of government documents to make the case for reform. "Thousands upon thousands of outdated, overlapping regulations remain in place," he reported, adding that a 1993 study said regulations cost the private sector at least $430 billion annually.
House Republicans countered last year with their "Contract with America," which contained this vow: "To free Americans from bureaucratic red tape, we will require every new regulation to stand a new test: Does it provide benefits worth the cost."
"There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip," said the ancient Greeks. Well, in this case, the cup has spilled right into the nation's lap.
The first sign of trouble came when Newt Gringrich's legionnaires passed legislation last March that was so severe in demanding cost-benefit requirements that it would have gutted decades of effort to protect Americans from dirty water, food and air. Democrats suspected, rightly, that the GOP was setting Mr. Clinton for a veto that would depict him as against regulatory reform.
When the legislation got to the Senate, matters became more complicated. Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, passed out a moderate, bipartisan bill that remains the best blueprint for reform. But Senate majority leader Robert Dole, well aware of the need to satisfy party conservatives, saw to it that a tougher bill came out of the Judiciary Committee.
The stage was set for battle, and a long, twilight struggle it has been. By Thursday night, when he bitterly pulled the measure from the floor, Mr. Dole had failed three times to shut off debate even after offering concessions that brought five rebellious moderate Republicans into camp. He was in a trap. Just as House Republicans were willing to go to any end to force Mr. Clinton to veto regulatory reform legislation, so Senate Democrats were united in trying to protect their president from such an embarrassment.
There are lawmakers -- Republican Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island is a standout -- who sincerely want responsible legislation to be passed. But they are confronted by anti-government Republicans and scare-tactics Democrats. Even if some kind of a compromise bill should get past the Senate, it would face fatal opposition in the House.
So instead of comprehensive reform, the nation can expect hit-and-run amendments on narrowly focused regulations and interminable posturing by politicians who consider reform a motherhood issue in the abstract but something altogether different when you get down to the specifics.