WASHINGTON - The Republican takeover of Congress may have been a sea of change for the role and scope of Congressional action, but the actual pumping out of the bilges of the ship of state will be done by the reconstituted House and Senate committees. As to how this will affect the plastics industry, one expert in the regulatory area predicts that there will be ``a lessening of the generic fear of the chlorineatom'' by legislators and regulatory officials.
Similarly, Washington hands believe the Environmental Protection Agency will not become a part of the president's cabinet, an action Congress nearly approved last term.
Supporters of the Republican Contract With America are poised to launch long-stifled risk assessment - the term for evaluating an environmental proposal by the financial cost - as well as a capital gains tax cut and regulatory agency cost-control legislation.
Most noteworthy of all committees for plastics processors is the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which reviews environmental and tax and revenue legislation. It was composed of 27 Democrats and 17 Republicans in the 103rd Congress; its makeup in the 104th is 24 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
The ideological composition of the Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to have a profound effect on risk assessment and cost/benefit legislation - in this case, the act of determining whether to impose a federal limit based on the perceived threat to public safety or welfare.
Said one Congressional staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, ``The EPA has been acting under rules regarding risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis for years. The question that can be decided by a Congressional action is whether you consider one spotted owl or the population of Oakland, [Calif.], as the basis for imposing a rule.''
The assumption is that in the 104th Congress, humans will outrank owls. However, a closer look at the personalities involved indicates that the change will not be overwhelming.
The committee's chair in the 103rd was the sometimes-tyrannical Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., known for his patronage to the auto industry.
But the incoming chairman, Republican Rep. Thomas Bliley, a smooth but strong-willed Virginian, is by no means a patsy for the plastics industry.
Bliley ``is not a crazy environmentalist, but he was a sponsor of last year's Safe Drinking Water Act,'' said Congress watcher Robert Fensterheim, a partner in the public affairs firm of Bayh, Connaughton, Fensterheim & Malone P.C. in Washington.
Fensterheim points to Bliley's actions regarding the Safe Drinking Water Act as evidence that risk assessment is somewhat middling on Bliley's agenda.
It was the impending threat of an unfavorable conference committee review of Bliley's safe water bill that killed risk assessment legislation during the 103rd Congress, Fensterheim said.
In the Senate, J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 103rd Congress, was often champion of risk assessment legislation. His replacement in the 104th Congress is Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I.
But Johnston is likely to be the sponsor again of requirements that substantive science and statistical cost benefit analysis be used in determining the public effect of any federal mandate.
``Sen. Johnston has an acute understanding of risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis,'' said a Republican staff member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. ``He wants to include some common sense in the process. He doesn't want people in Wyoming concerned about being fined for spraying of the pineapple nematode just because the law is written to make them subject to a fine.''