Democrats Say Oversight Is Overdue

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 14, 2006; D01

The rulemaking agenda in Washington is about to change. Business, labor and public interest groups agree that the incoming Democratic House and Senate will conduct robust oversight of federal agencies and their regulatory output and policies.

"I feel like Moses coming out of the desert after 40 years," said Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who is in line to head the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Business lobbyists have been powerful players with the Congress and the White House under Republican control the past six years. The emphasis was on minimal regulation, easy access to federal rulemakers, many of whom came from industry, and almost no congressional oversight.

There were occasional bursts of activity after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the collapse of Enron Corp . and coal mine disasters. But for the most part, business interests were able to constrain new rules or put their imprint upon them. And many workplace-safety rules proposed by the Clinton administration were shelved.

"I can't be happier," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors regulatory policy. "The public wins. Some of these political appointees are going to have to learn what oversight is."

Business groups are wary of the shift. Still, trade associations pledged to work with new members. "Just because they are Democrats doesn't mean they aren't with us," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Some of the new masters of oversight are eager to get to work. Oberstar's agenda includes tightening port security and improving the operations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, much maligned for its Hurricane Katrina performance.

Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, is set to return as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over consumer protection, telecommunications, air quality, energy, and food and drug safety.

Dingell has a reputation for relentless investigation, and his "Dingellgrams" -- requests for exhaustive paperwork from federal agencies and witnesses -- are remembered and feared in Washington.

"When you are battered up there, it does affect your direction," recalled James Tozzi, who made frequent appearances before Dingell when he was in leadership positions at the Office of Management and Budget's regulatory-review office. "It was an unpleasant but fair exercise."

One notable change in direction is expected from Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and the incoming head of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where he has been the ranking minority member for six years.

"It's been clear there has been no oversight; not even mildly aggressive oversight," said Miller, whose panel oversees regulatory policy at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Under Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican from Georgia, the subcommittee on workforce protections held hearings devoted to issues such as recovery of legal fees for small-business owners "when they contest unjust OSHA citations and prevail in court."

Miller said in an interview that he doesn't have a lengthy agenda but that he wants to examine the value of voluntary compliance programs and self-reporting of OSHA violations by employers.

Labor unions are expected to get some of their issues back on the agenda, especially because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, will head the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Our hope is Congress will address key issues that have been ignored and gotten worse over the last six years," such as companies "dumping" their pension plans, said Bill Samuel, director of legislation for the AFL-CIO, the labor union federation.

Environmentalists and consumer advocates view the Democrats' return to power as an opportunity to reverse what they view as the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and to push rules encouraging energy efficiency and alternative forms of energy. They also hope Congress will examine food-safety rules in light of continuing outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in fresh produce, and scrutinize, if not repeal, tax breaks given to the oil industry.

"There has been a hands-off attitude toward business and little oversight, sending the green light that they can abuse consumers," said Gene Kimmelman, the vice president for federal and international affairs at the Consumers Union.

Lawmakers may also use the appropriations process to block or start funding for regulatory initiatives -- a tactic both parties have used for years.

For example, business groups say Democrats are likely to block funding of an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to scale back the Toxics Release Inventory report, a public database that annually catalogues the release and transfer of toxic chemicals.

The Chamber of Commerce prepared a pre-election analysis of the possible effect of a switch in the balance of power.

It included expanding provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act; making it easier for employees to organize and harder for employers to classify workers as non-union supervisors; prohibiting health plans from having separate annual coverage limits on mental health; broadening the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prescription-drug prices.

Look for some furious lobbying by business groups between now and the time Republican control of Congress ends, given their memories of past Democratic congresses.

"These are the same folks who brought us the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and top-down regulatory control schemes," said Andrew Langer, manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the lobbies closest to the Republicans.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached