With much fanfare in small business circles, Congress last year took a potentially big step and gave itself the power to reach down into the bowels of Washington's bureaucracy and eliminate new regulations it deemed too intrusive.
The Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, passed in March 1996, essentially tilts the regulatory balance of power to Congress.
Don't expect action any time soon. Congressional leaders have yet to make serious use of it because they lack the political will, and fear that President Clinton and environmentalists will take them to the woodshed over it.
Two rules that are among the strongest candidates for such a challenge will have a big impact on the plastics industry: the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality standards and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposal to cut methylene chloride emissions.
The EPA proposal has raised questions from some prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill and from moderate congressional Republicans such as Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee.
The OSHA proposal stirred a similar debate: it ratchets allowable emissions of methylene chloride, used in producing foam, from 500 parts per million down to 25.
You can debate the wisdom of each rule, or argue that they are needed to protect the environment or workers. What's less open to debate is that since Congress passed SBREFA, the government has promulgated 4,800 new rules, including 80 with an economic impact of at least $100 million. Not one has been challenged seriously.
One policy wonk at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank normally friendly to Republicans, told a congressional hearing earlier this month: ``The House and Senate leadership and some powerful committee chairs remain immobilized by the fear that they cannot win a public relations battle against well-financed special interest groups — in particular environmental and consumer groups.''
Some members of Congress offer other reasons. The House's Small Business Committee says legislators do not get enough independent information to gauge the impact of rules. It wants to create a small office in Congress to provide that analysis.
There's some truth to the argument that Congress lacks independent information, but that ignores the central point: There are almost 5,000 rules, some of which have been debated widely, and not one serious challenge.
Consider it the congressional Republicans' silent testimonial to their own impotence.
Toloken is a Washington-based staff writer for Plastics News.