WASHINGTON - The tug-of-war between a reform-bent, Republican Congress and an entrenched regulatory bureaucracy is likely to continue into 1996, with changes sought by plastics processors happening gradually, perhaps without the benefit of legislation. The year-old Congress has not reached consensus with President Clinton on major legislative changes of the type asked for by processors. Regulatory reform and the streamlining of rulemaking may make their way gradually into practice, but congres-sional and private-sector observers now question the degree to which such initiatives will end up as law.
A major roadblock: A divided attention span caused by the rapidly approaching presidential election season.
Dr. Harvey Alter, manager of resources policy development for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, believes the Newt Gingrich-led Congress has had a ``very poorly expressed view'' of how to reduce the effect of government regulation on the lives of ordinary citizens.
But Alter said the Clinton White House believes ``any change in the status quo is seen as a weakening,'' especially regarding environmental views.
Said Alter: ``The big question for Clinton, from the plastics and plastics processor industries, is, `How far will [Clinton] bend toward the environment lobby on chlorine?' ''
Like many Washington associations, those representing plastics processors are looking at ``general business issues'' in 1996, according to Richard Thornburg, Flexible Packaging Institute director of government relations in Washington.
``This is an election year and heavy emphasis on new issues is not likely to happen,'' he said. ``There's nothing on the horizon that aims specifically at the flexible packaging industry.''
Regulatory reform - which has languished since the Senate failed to bring the issue to a vote in July - and environmental audits are on the horizon, he said.
Growing in importance to small businesses in general and small processors specifically is reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Thornburg believes. OSHA, sensing pent-up dissatisfaction over its workplace safety inspections, late last year allowed companies with 60 or more employees to report data on workers' job site-related accidents directly to the federal government.
That move does not go far enough for many.
``We hope to reduce the number of visits to companies [by OSHA] and some of the silly fines they impose,'' Thornburg said.
Those concerned with specific agency reform, however, include medical plastics molders, who would like to improve the way the Food and Drug Administration approves products.
The National Medical Device Coalition plans to continue its support for the FDA Performance and Accountability Act, which would allow for a third party - outside the manufacturer and the government - to review medical devices, and to reduce the amount of time FDA takes to approve products.
Jeffrey Kimbell, executive director of the coalition, said FDA reform tops medical device manufacturers' agenda, at least through March.
Regulatory reform lobbying concerns such as the Alliance for Reasonable Regulation, which took up a significant part of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s legislative agenda in 1995, will have to reignite members' enthusiasm for measures that would apply dollars-and-cents accountability to government programs.
But as Lewis R. Freeman Jr., SPI's vice president of government affairs, noted recently, some government agencies are beginning to adopt some aspects of the regulatory reform agenda legislation passed by Congress or signed by Clinton. For example, EPA is beginning to apply risk-assessment principles to its rule making.
SPI's position, however, is to codify risk assessment - both to define the limits of acceptable risk in government rules and to determine whether the cost of imposing the regulation is less than or equal to its benefit.
Joe Davis, an ARR spokesman, said the coalition, which in-cludes SPI, is identifying Democratic senators who would helpbreak the logjam that prevented a regulatory reform vote in that body in July. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D.-La., a longtime advocate of applying cost/benefit theory to government mandates, is leading the effort to encourage support of regulatory reform by more Democratic senators. Davis said only ``four or five,'' including Virginia's Sen. Charles Robb and Montana's Sen. Max Baucus, would be needed to stop debate on the measure and bring about a vote.
Presidential election politics this year just as easily could provide a boost to regulatory reform as kill it outright, according to Davis.
Regulatory reform ``was a good pro-business issue to campaign with in 1994 and could still be,'' he noted. ``It won't be if the [presidential] campaign focuses on the environment.''
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R.-La., remains unfazed.
``If we are going to rebuld the fabric of the American political relationship, it starts in regulatory reform,'' he said in a speech reprinted in the fall 1995 issue of Common Sense, a GOP-funded magazine. ``It starts in putting common sense into regulations like wetlands and endangered species laws, clean air, clean water, all the things by which we regulate for the good, but in ways that don't make sense anymore.''
At some point in the 104th Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has pledged he will name a Republican task force on the environment.
The House Republican Contract with America does not specifically mention an environmental imperative, but the Republican Party appears eager to establish a track record with America over the environment in 1996.
Gingrich aide Rob Hood noted in October that the House Republican leadership was ``behind the curve'' in setting out environmental legislative goals. Hood told the Environmental Law Institute that Gingrich is intent on addressing this ``weakness'' with a program that promotes a ``healthy productive environment'' that does not cause ``economic decay.''
Yet deep divisions within the House membership and among some Republicans assures little agreement on environmental policies that, until the 104th Congress, essentially had gone unchallenged for more than 25 years.
Don Ritter, chairman of the Washington-based National Environmental Policy Institute and a former Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania, said, ``A Republican environmental policy right now is an oxymoron.''
Advisers to Ritter are suggesting environmental platform ideas for the 1996 elections in hopes NEPI will promote them to Republican candidates. Included is this ``vision statement'' proposal: ``Improve environmental health and safety protection for real people in a timely and cost-effective manner by using open, transparent processes and partnerships between citizens, governments and businesses.''