Republicans in charge won't necessarily mean fewer rules

Conventional wisdom among business executives is that having a Republican in the White House means a more business-friendly set of agency heads and less burdensome regulations. The reality is usually much more mixed.

Much of the rulemaking that fattens the Federal Register is beyond the discretion of the President and his appointees. It is dictated by Congress, sometimes reinforced by court orders. Even where regulators have leeway in writing the rules, they may want to prove they are not “anti-____” (fill in the blank: environment, labor, public health or workplace safety).

Moreover, businesses frequently want more rulemaking. Too often, Congress acts in haste or patches over deep philosophical differences by writing a vague or sweeping law and leaving administrators to write the devilish details of interpretation. Without regulations, businesses are left guessing whether their actions are legal. In other cases, one business's burdensome regulation is another firm's reason to exist.

So much for the political science lecture; let's get down to cases. Is the Bush team going to be more friendly to trucking than its predecessors? Not necessarily. In any case, the answer will be a long time coming. First, it takes quite a while to get the key appointees in place and up to speed. Rules aren't written by cabinet officers, although they must ultimately sign them and defend them. Some of the third- and fourth-tier appointees who oversee the actual rule-writing may not be appointed and confirmed by the Senate for a year or more.

Last year trucking faced a triple threat: ergonomics, low-sulfur diesel and new hours-of-service limits. How will those regulations fare under the Bush Administration?

The ergonomics rule is already final and partly in effect. To rescind or modify it would require a new round of publishing a proposed rule, holding a lengthy comment period and adopting a final rule. Congress opted not to stop the ergonomics rule, although a federal court might.

The rule requiring refiners to cut 97% of the sulfur out of diesel fuel by the end of the decade is a rule some industries support: Engine and vehicle makers, as well as nonhighway industries that fear they would have to do more to cut emissions if truckers don't.

The hours-of-service overhaul is still under consideration. It's hard to say if the Bush version will be any more popular with trucking.

The Clinton Administration, like its predecessors, added a huge number of pages to the federal rule book in its last days. But some of these last-minute additions are industry-friendly. For example:

  • Businesses that contract with the government will now find the accounting rules clearer and simpler.

  • The Internal Revenue Service finalized its proposed rules on “COBRA” continuation coverage for health insurance in the January 10 Federal Register. The 1999 proposals were already a vast improvement over the original rules, and the final version adds further clarification and relief for small employers and for multi-employer plans.

The bottom line: The new kids on the rulemaking block are likely to have a pro-business orientation. But don't expect a quick or dramatic difference. Revoking a regulation often requires the same long process as putting it in place. Many of the rules you face now are the result of laws passed by a Republican Congress, signed by a Republican President, and/or mandated by a judge appointed by a Republican. So don't bet the truck that Republican rulers will mean relief from rules.