Last year, when ruling Republicans in Congress were out to terminate every federal regulation in sight, the Clinton Administration couldn't deregulate fast enough. The Food & Drug Administration sped up new drug approvals, the Treasury Dept. shelved plans to tighten regs on bank lending to minorities, and all the rulemaking agencies promised a new industry-friendly climate.
But now that it's campaign season, antigovernment Republicans are in retreat and Clinton regulators have a new mantra: Be voter friendly. That's why President Clinton unveiled a meat inspection plan on July 6, why the White House may soon announce new FDA tobacco regulations, and why the President will jawbone broadcasters at a July 29 Oval Office summit about carrying more educational children's shows. All are winning stances with the public, so the GOP Congress can only gripe. "These are Mom-and-apple-pie issues," says Brad Stillman of the Consumer Federation of America.
"MASS HYSTERIA." The regulatory resurgence goes beyond the high-profile initiatives the White House is promoting. From foul food to unsafe cars, consumer cops are getting tough with companies that expected a more cooperative stance. "Business feels stabbed in the back," complains Mary Bernhard, a lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The most controversial of the pro-consumer moves is an FDA plan to cut smoking by kids. The proposal--including a ban on billboard ads near schools and curbs on magazine ads children might see--awaits White House approval. But it has already sparked protests from a broad business coalition. "The agency is silencing commercial speech without authority," fumes Lawrence Finerman, a lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers. The White House sees an advantage in pushing the FDA rules at a time when Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole is on the run as a tobacco defender.
The tiny Consumer Product Safety Commission hasn't stirred up as much dust as the FDA in policing everyday household items, but it's trying. "We have made this a highly visible agency," boasts Chairwoman Ann W. Brown. She says the CPSC prefers to prod businesses to recall unsafe products voluntarily. But Brown also has forced recalls of such items as flammable rayon skirts and hazardous toys, and she's trying harder to publicize potential dangers. In June, for example, a warning about lead-tainted miniblinds left stores with thousands of returns. "It was mass hysteria," groans International Mass Retail Assn. lobbyist Meg Farrage.
FRUSTRATED. Likewise, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has lately irked auto makers. On June 4, it filed a lawsuit against Chrysler Corp. to order the recall of more than 91,000 1995 Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars for allegedly unsafe seatbelts. Chrysler claims the belts passed company-run tests prescribed by the agency, and says it's a victim of NHTSA's attempt to score points with consumers. "We get caught in the politicization of issues," gripes Chrysler spokesman Christopher Preuss.
Broadcasters are just as frustrated with the Federal Communications Commission, which wants at least three hours of educational kids' programming a week. "If indeed the era of Big Government is over, why hasn't the message gotten to the FCC chairman?" asks Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The Clintonites' answer: Voters may say they don't like Big Government, but they do when it comes to protecting their health and safety. To the dismay of the GOP and its business allies, Bill Clinton has discovered that advocating a safer America is a safe issue with Americans.