Industries seek regulation

From today's New York Times.

I never thought that the NYT would adopt this view of regulation...

In Turnaround, Industries Seek U.S. Regulations
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Published: September 16, 2007

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 - After years of favoring the hands-off doctrine of the Bush administration, some of the nation's biggest industries are pushing for something they have long resisted: new federal regulations.
Push for Regulations from Unlikely Sources

For toys and cars, antifreeze and fireworks, popcorn and produce and cigarettes and light bulbs, among other products, industry groups or major manufacturers are calling for federal health, safety and environmental mandates. Some of those industries are abandoning years of efforts to block such measures, often in alliance with the Bush administration, which pledged to ease what it views as costly, unnecessary rules.

The consequences for consumers, though, are not yet clear. The tactical shift by industry groups is motivated by a confluence of self-interests: growing competition from inexpensive imports that do not meet voluntary standards, and a desire to head off liability lawsuits and pre-empt tough state laws or legal actions that were a response to laissez-faire Bush administration policies. Concerns that Democrats could soon expand their control in Washington have also prompted manufacturers or producers to seek regulations that they consider the least burdensome, regulatory experts say.

"There seems to be, at the moment, a fair amount of efforts under way by individual industries to put into statute what had either previously been voluntary consensus standards or industry goals," said Rosario Palmieri, a regulatory lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers, which has often opposed government regulations. "This year, we have seen quite a bit of it."

Rick Melberth, director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch, a Washington group that tracks federal regulatory actions, agreed. "I have never before seen so many industries joining a push for regulation," Mr. Melberth said. "What we need to watch closely is if this will achieve a real increase in standards and public protections or simply serve corporate interests."

Some industries and consumer groups are aligned in seeking the same regulations, though perhaps for different reasons. "It's definitely a strange-bedfellow situation," said Sarah Klein, a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is seeking, along with grocery stores and produce growers, new requirements to prevent food-borne illnesses. "The voluntary system is not working from a food-safety perspective, and it's creating real problems for the industry."

Other industries, though, are endorsing mandated government standards that fall well short of what consumer advocates want or what tougher state rules require. Trade groups representing makers of antifreeze, upholstered furniture and all-terrain vehicles, for example, had long opposed federal regulations, but are now pushing the Bush administration for rules that consumer advocates say inadequately address safety or environmental concerns.

"I am worried about industry lobbyists bearing gifts," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington. "I don't trust them. Their ultimate goal is regulation that protects them, not the public."

Federal agencies and the White House have responded to these regulatory proposals in varying ways, with some agencies quickly endorsing them and others deferring action or moving to block them. Susan E. Dudley, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget division that oversees administration regulatory policy, said she was not sure if the number of requests for federal regulations from industry groups was rising. The administration must evaluate each of these proposals, she said, "to understand the full consequences of regulations on all citizens."

The practice of industry groups turning to regulators or legislators in Washington for a national standard or mandate is not new, of course. While businesses often oppose requirements by saying they are unnecessary as it is already in their interest to produce safe products, at other times they have asked for them to avoid a patchwork of state regulations, to ensure that competitors must meet the same standard or to provide legal protection.

Warning labels on cigarettes, certain workplace safety laws and even nutritional labels on food packaging can be attributed, in part, to actions by industries over the last four decades to push for a federal standard, industry lawyers and lobbyists said.

But industry officials, consumer groups and regulatory experts all agree there has been a recent surge of requests for new regulations, and one reason they give is the Bush administration's willingness to include provisions that would block consumer lawsuits in state and federal courts.

Such pre-emption clauses were included, for example, in a drug label rule issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and in a new fire-prevention standard for mattresses imposed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in July, said David C. Vladeck, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The pre-emptions bar consumers from filing liability claims in courts and supersede any tougher state regulations, extremely valuable protections for a major manufacturer, Mr. Vladeck said. "This is Christmas," he said of industry, "this is their wish list." A number of businesses are seeking such pre-emptions, though the clauses are being challenged in many courts.