In the midst of the last Republican revolution in the mid-1990s, the founder of the advocacy group OMB Watch convened a group of safety, health and environmental advocates to join forces and oppose efforts by the GOP Congress to cut federal regulations. More or less, they succeeded.
This spring, Bass is at it again, drawing together a coalition of like-minded groups to fend off a series of similar deregulatory proposals moving through the new Congress, which has a GOP-controlled House. The group, called the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, includes many of the same organizations — and in some cases, the same people — that banded together 16 years ago.
Back then, Bass called the group Citizens for Sensible Safeguards. He testified in February 1995 that "we are concerned about a growing anti-regulatory mood that puts public protections second to free market considerations." Regulatory reform legislation drafted by the Republican Congress, he said then, was "little more than an anti-regulatory attack premised on the industry-led view that government regulations thwart competitiveness."
Today, Bass makes largely the same argument about bills introduced in the 112th Congress to curb regulations. "When the Contract With America was proposed, that was an assault on the notion of federal regulation," Bass recently told Roll Call. "That assault is reoccuring today as part of a general anti-government sentiment."
Several regulatory reform measures have sprung up already in the 112th Congress, including a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to create a commission to "sunset" federal programs and a bill by Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) called the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act that would require Congressional approval of any new major rules written by federal agencies. Supporters of the measure said this is a proper system of Congressional oversight to ensure that rules properly reflect legislative intent and to curb unnecessary rules; opponents say it would make it almost impossible for an agency to implement a major regulation.
Bass and his coalition are targeting these measures as unwise and unwarranted attempts to block important health and safety standards. The coalition includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, the AFL-CIO, Public Citizen and a host of other labor, health and environmental groups that are reprising their roles from the Gingrich Congress in the effort to stop a GOP "regulatory reform" effort.
The group began forming just after the November elections and had its first formal meeting in March. It has funding from the Bauman Foundation; Bass is leaving OMB Watch at the end of June to work full time for the foundation, but he will continue leading the coalition as well.
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."
Wayne Brough, vice president for research at FreedomWorks, said the tea party wave has created "a real opportunity" for regulatory reform for the first time in years and noted that many of the original reform proposals of 1995 never became law.
"After the '94 win in Congress, a lot of the groups thought reg reform would be a slam dunk ... and there would never be another bad regulation." Both things proved untrue, Brough said, and "this time I don't see the same exuberance."
But Bass said his group is also committed to a fight.
His coalition "will be doing the research, the rapid response, it will be doing the lobbying," Bass said. "We are not going to let all of these claims go unsubstantiated this time. ... We are not going to just sit back and take it. They may have more money than us, but we are also going to bring out the people who are affected by all this."
The bottom line, Bass said, is that regulation "is not the cause of economic calamity. In terms of mass layoffs as reported by employers ... weather has more impact than government regulation."
Correction: May 4, 2011
The caption accompanying the article misstated the origins of the group OMB Watch. The group was founded in 1983 and went on to lead the opposition to Republican regulatory reform efforts in the mid-1990s.