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A Times Editorial

Repeal president's last-minute rules

It was timed perfectly. The federal rule that was just issued to allow health professionals to refuse to provide services such as the morning-after pill, if they violate the provider's convictions, is set to take effect just before the Obama administration takes over. How convenient.

This is just one of many such parting gifts the Bush administration is leaving behind for some of its favorite special interests. Name the industry — oil and gas, mining, chemical — all are in line to enjoy the benefits of last-minute regulations.

While the move to push through controversial "midnight" regulations at the end of a president's tenure is nothing new, the changes the outgoing Bush administration is adopting are alarming. The dozens of proposed changes — some now final — would despoil public lands, increase pollution and harm worker safety, among other outrages.

President-elect Barack Obama will have many challenges at the start of his presidency, but reversing and repealing many of these rules with the cooperation of Congress should be one of his first acts.

The chemical industry has a history of failing to police itself to ensure worker safety. Yet the ability of government to regulate exposure to on-the-job toxic substances and hazardous material is about to be sharply limited by a regulation that the Labor Department is working to finalize. The new rule would require that before standards are adopted to protect worker health, federal agencies first analyze "industry-by-industry" evidence of exposure to the questionable substance by workers during their working lives. This could significantly slow the regulatory process, particularly in cases where there is no such data currently available.

Also on the list of deplorable new rules is one that would allow mining companies to dump the rocks and other debris from mountain-top removal into rivers and streams. Another would limit scientific review by government experts into the impact of new federal development projects on endangered species.

And there are plenty of others equally as noxious.

The new president's options will be limited. He can reverse any regulation that has not been finally enacted by the time he takes office on Jan. 20, and he can do the same for any of Bush's executive orders. But in order to repeal a final regulation, an Obama administration would have to go through the slow, elaborate rulemaking process.

The better approach is to enlist Congress. With the added Democratic majorities in both chambers, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 will allow for the expedited repeal of these regulations. The measure was passed during the Clinton administration, and the Republican-dominated Congress wanted a way to reject his regulations. The law grants Congress 60 working days to review any new rules promulgated by a federal agency. There are complexities about timing, but the way it operates would allow the 111th Congress that convenes in January the ability to reach back to about May to set aside Bush administration regulations.

All rule repeals would have to pass majorities of both chambers and be signed by the president. Democratic congressional leaders are already preparing the ground to utilize the process. The window of opportunity is small, but if everyone cooperates it shouldn't take too long to start cleaning up after the Bush administration.

Repeal president's last-minute rules 12/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, January 2, 2009 7:26pm]
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