First of three articles
Tuberculosis had sneaked up again, reappearing with alarming frequency across the United States. The government began writing rules to protect 5 million people whose jobs put them in special danger. Hospitals and homeless shelters, prisons and drug treatment centers -- all would be required to test their employees for TB, hand out breathing masks and quarantine those with the disease. These steps, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration predicted, could prevent 25,000 infections a year and 135 deaths.
By the time President Bush moved into the White House, the tuberculosis rules, first envisioned in 1993, were nearly complete. But the new administration did nothing on the issue for the next three years.
Then, on the last day of 2003, in an action so obscure it was not mentioned in any major newspaper in the country, the administration canceled the rules. Voluntary measures, federal officials said, were effective enough to make regulation unnecessary.
The demise of the decade-old plan of defense against tuberculosis reflects the way OSHA has altered its regulatory mission to embrace a more business-friendly posture. In the past 3 1/2 years, OSHA, the branch of the Labor Department in charge of workers' well-being, has eliminated nearly five times as many pending standards as it has completed. It has not started any major new health or safety rules, setting Bush apart from the previous three presidents, including Ronald Reagan .
The changes within OSHA since George W. Bush took office illustrate the way that this administration has used the regulatory process to redirect the course of government.
To examine this process, The Washington Post explored the Bush administration's approach to regulation from three perspectives. This article about OSHA traces the impact on one regulatory agency. Tomorrow's story will look at a lobbyist's 32-line, last-minute addition to a bill that created a tool for attacking the science used to support new regulations. Tuesday's article will document a one-word change in a regulation that allowed coal companies to accelerate efforts to strip away the tops of thousands of Appalachian mountains.
The Post also analyzed a database from the Office of Management and Budget containing the 38,000 regulatory actions considered by agencies over the past two decades.
The analysis, combined with the more detailed look at specific regulatory decisions, shows how an administration can employ this subtle aspect of presidential power to implement far-reaching policy changes. Most of the decisions are made without the public attention that accompanies congressional debate. Under Bush, these decisions have spanned logging in national forests, patients' rights in government health insurance programs, tests for tainted packaged meats, Indian land transactions and grants to religious charities.
All presidents have written or eliminated regulations to further their agendas. What is distinctive about Bush is that he quickly imposed a culture intended to put his anti-regulatory stamp on government.
Unlike his two predecessors, Bush has canceled more of the unfinished regulatory work he inherited than he has completed, according to The Post's analysis. He has also begun fewer new rules than either President Bill Clinton or President George H.W. Bush during the same period of their presidencies. Since the younger Bush took office, federal agencies have begun roughly one-quarter fewer rules than Clinton and 13 percent fewer than Bush's father during comparable periods.
President Bush's closest advisers and sharpest critics agree that the shift in regulatory climate since he took office in January 2001 has been profound. But they disagree over whether that shift represents a harmful turn away from federal protections to benefit business or a useful streamlining of costly government rules.
Sally Katzen, who oversaw all federal regulation for five years under Clinton as deputy budget director for information and regulatory affairs, said new regulations were, in those days, embraced as a means to improve the quality of water, of air -- in short, of people's lives. "Bush, or at least the people around him, are skeptical, if not hostile to that notion," she said.
John D. Graham, who holds the same job in the Bush White House, said regulations are "a form of unfunded mandate that the federal government imposes on the private sector or on state or local governments." A president, he said, should not be judged solely by the number of regulations he starts or cancels.
This White House, Graham said, has initiated regulations when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs -- for example, a decision last year that eventually will require labeling of trans fatty acids in food. "We've just been much more selective about expensive new regulatory requirements than previous administrations have been," he said.
Rules Placed in Jeopardy
At OSHA, the administration's regulatory philosophy has translated into a smaller staff to develop new standards, less reliance on the views of organized labor and an enlarged role for businesses.
As Bush set out in 2001 to recast the government along more conservative lines, workplace standards seemed an unlikely focus. During his transition period, the new president did not assign anyone to assess OSHA; the transition "team" for the entire Labor Department consisted of one longtime congressional aide.
A relatively small part of the department for three decades, OSHA has the large mission of sifting through research on potential hazards to workers and deciding when the government should step in. It writes federal standards, conducts inspections to determine whether employers follow them and metes out punishment when they do not.