In 1995, Wesley Warren was working in President Bill Clinton's White House, consulting with outside groups that opposed reforms by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "I worked with Gary Bass and the coalition, but I wasn't part of it," Warren said.
Now, as director of programs for the NRDC, Warren said the new regulatory reform battle is evidence that "there is nothing harder to kill in Washington than a bad idea."
Warren said Republicans are trying to "burden regulatory agencies with procedures that will be difficult or expensive to accomplish ... at the same time they starve the agency of resources to do their work." The combination will prevent agencies from issuing new rules even where they have legislative authority or obligations to do so, he said.
Scott Slesinger is now the NRDC's legislative director, but in 1995 he worked for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who took the lead in defending environmental regulations in the 104th Congress. Slesinger said, "In 1994, you heard the same arguments that you are hearing today: 'Your crippling regulations are going to put us out of business.'"
But he noted that the economy soared for most of the years since then, and when Republicans in Congress polled industry at the start of the 112th Congress for suggestions of what rules to eliminate, "most of the suggestions were about future rules" in areas such as banking and health care. "The current ones ... turned out not to be so bad."
Most of the Republican Members of Congress who took the lead on regulatory reform in the 1990s are no longer in office. But like Bass and his coalition of opponents, many of the regulatory reform advocates are the same folks who faced off on the issue two decades ago.
Wayne Crews, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, just released the 2011 edition of "Ten Thousand Commandments," a report on regulatory costs that he has produced more or less annually since 1992. Crews said the attention on regulations has increased in this Congress because the number and costs of regulations have exploded as the economy has struggled to recover.
"Spending increases lead to an increase in regulation," Crews said. "When government grows and creates new programs — like the Department of Homeland Security, new spending at [the Federal Communications Commission], health care reform — all that spending translates into more government regulation."
James Gattuso, senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, said the regulation debate should begin with the view that the government should "be reluctant to regulate unless it is absolutely necessary."
Gattuso hosts long-running regular meetings of like-minded people from think tanks and Capitol Hill who are concerned about regulation. "We were into regulatory reform before regulatory reform was cool," he said last week. Gattuso, who was active in the regulatory reform debate in 1995 as a vice president at Citizens for a Sound Economy, which has since merged into FreedomWorks, said this new debate will benefit from having experienced players who can get beyond the "superficial side of it."
But Gattuso said the deregulatory crowd has seen an influx of new blood with the rise of the tea party movement. "The tea party is a new element that we didn't have before. ... They are intensely distrustful of government and generally believe that there is too much regulation."