Playing Jekyll And Hyde With Business

When the Clinton Administration took office, it pledged to be different and give government a pro-market, New Democratic look. Business leaders of course feared that, behind the rhetoric, the Clintonites would turn out to be traditional Dems who lasso anything that moves with red tape.

After two years in office, who's right? The answer is...both sides. The Clinton Administration is a split personality, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when it comes to business. The good Dr. Jekyll favors markets and competitiveness, but the monstrous Mr. Hyde tries to strangle everything with regulation.

Take health and safety, Hyde's twin triumphs. In these areas, Clinton's minions are trying to tighten Washington's grip. Health care, of course, was the worst. It's hard to imagine a more audacious program to expand government intrusiveness than Hillary Rodham Clinton's ill-fated health-care reform bill. Joseph A. Dear's agenda, however, is coming in a close second at OSHA, as he pushes more heavy-handed rules, mandates, and paperwork on employers. Transportation Secretary Frederico F. Pea did his share when he overruled his own technical staff, ordering hearings into whether General Motors should recall its pickup trucks for safety defects.

But then there is the other Clinton Administration personality. Vice-President Gore has pushed to break down barriers to telecom competition and let the markets build the new Information Superhighway. Anne K. Bingaman, the Justice Dept.'s antitrust chief, may bluster, but she ends up by reaching sensible decisions, such as in the Microsoft case. Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown has won applause for his "airlift" of U.S. exports and efforts to lift export controls on high-tech products. And Clinton himself fought hard for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade.

Business is blindly angry at President Clinton. Therein lies a major error. It would do well to see clearly that different forces vie for the economic soul of the Administration. Business should support those fighting for global competitiveness and battle those pushing for excessive regulation.