When signing statements aren't enough

George W. Bush moves -- again -- to curtail the regulation of industry.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 30, 2007 1:58PM (EST)

As the New York Times reports this morning, George W. Bush has signed an executive order aimed at giving the White House much greater control over the implementation of laws passed by Congress.

Under Bush's order, published last week in the Federal Register, the White House will place political appointees in new regulatory policy offices in major federal agencies. Their job: Keep a lid on efforts to regulate industry by making sure that any new agency "guidance documents" are justified by a specific "market failure." The order prohibits agencies from using "mandatory language such as 'shall,' 'must,' 'required' or 'requirement'" in guidance documents they publish, and it requires agencies to give the White House the chance to review -- and presumably, reject -- "any significant guidance documents" before they are issued.

Here's the part of this we don't understand: Why is Bush's order even necessary? Last time we checked, the president's political appointees were already running the federal agencies he now feels a need to put in check. And as the Washington Post reported in a series of articles back in 2004, the result has already been pretty impressive: The administration has killed regulatory work that was in progress when Bush took office; canceled a plan that could have prevented 25,000 tuberculosis infections a year; eased regulations to allow more strip mining in the Appalachians; and lightened the regulatory load on everything from healthcare to food safety to protection of the environment.

Even back in 2004, Bush's critics and supporters agreed that his regulatory rollbacks had been profound. Now his industry supporters want more. And with Congress not quite the easy target for them that it was just a few months ago, they're relieved that Bush is delivering for them again.

William Kovacs, a vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tells the Times that Bush's order is "the most serious attempt by any chief executive to get control over the regulatory process." He thinks that's a good thing -- it will result in regulations that are "less onerous and more reasonable," he says -- but academics, activists and Democrats see things just a little differently. "The executive order allows the political staff at the White House to dictate decisions on health and safety issues, even if the government's own impartial experts disagree," says House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman Henry Waxman. "This is a terrible way to govern, but great news for special interests."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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