By Ronald Y. Perez, WC&P Senior Editor
As the next president of the United States is officially anointed later this month (the only thing I know for certain is it’ll be somebody with a four-letter last name), another American pastime has come and gone without much fanfare. We’re talking about “midnight regulations.” What are they, you ask? It’s when federal agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), move at a frenzied pace to issue rules before their terms expire. How does it affect the water industry? You’d be surprised.
“Midnight regulations” is a term that was first coined in 1981. At the time, it was widely reported the volume of regulations printed in the Federal Register during the waning days of the Carter Administration was running three to four times higher than usual for the period.
Regulations can be fun
A new website, www.RegRadar.org, from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University at Arlington, Va., has made it a mission to track such regulations and legislation slammed through the doors of Washington that only the investigative reporters, lawyers and assorted others in a frivolous pursuit of information overload would bother to read in detail. Note: a similar variation of the site exists at www.RegRadar.com with a slightly different home page.
A working paper by Mercatus research fellow Dr. Jay Cochran reviewed the past 14 presidential elections (for those who may have believed this was spurned by a vast right-wing conspiracy), and found the volume of regulation jumped an average of nearly 17 percent in the last quarter of a president’s final year, compared to those same months in non-election years. It’s the website’s goal to put the jargon and legalese of the regulatory process into a vernacular that’s easier to understand.
“It’s almost impossible to keep up with regulations,” said Wendy Gramm, director of the regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center. “You have to listen to rumors, wade through the voluminous Federal Register, and rely on word-of-mouth. We’ve created RegRadar.org to help business people, policy makers, journalists and other interested parties track and learn about regulatory proposals.”
If this sounds as exciting as another three-week vote recount, keep in mind that some of these regulations are aimed at the water industry in ways that may affect how some of you conduct business and provide the appropriate solutions. Let’s take a closer look at the site.
With the U.S. capitol building in the backdrop, the home page is surprisingly short on text (four brief paragraphs) and easy to maneuver. Of course, the site’s home page begins with the main feature—midnight regulations. To the left main headings listed include “keep us posted,” “economic & financial,” “environment, energy & natural resources,” “health,” “transportation,” “workplace” and “other.”
Visitors are reminded that a majority of the site is still under construction. It will focus primarily on “midnight regulations” until after the first of the year. The goal is to have the site fully functional by the time the president is inaugurated at the end of this month. An “archives” button is available, but currently under construction.
Where to begin
The majority of this column’s readers may want to first peruse the “environment, energy & natural resources” button to significantly reduce their search for water-related regulations. The “Search RegRadar” function further serves to pinpoint specific elements of the water industry. A search on “water” turned up eight selections; however, they all referred to the same piece of legislation. In each case, the legislation’s status is given. A common mistake here may be to completely overlook the “health” button. Clicking there, one can find water-related information as well.
“In The News” is an up-to-date review of certain publications, both government (Government Executive) and private (New York Times), where federal regulations have appeared within articles. An archive story file is available, and traces related stories for the previous month or so.
Under the site-ubiquitous heading “About Us”—which gives a thumbnail sketch about the Mercatus Center and contact information—is the more relevant “Regulatory Process” button. For some reason, this lesson on regulations (quite useful, by the way) reminded me of the “I’m Just a Bill?” Schoolhouse Rock skit that used to run on Saturday morning cartoons, but without the funny, little caricatures of George Washington. But I digress. In fact, the section does begin with the question, “What is a regulation?” It also touches upon the USEPA and the Clean Water Act as well as offering links to the Federal Register and Unified Agenda, which lists the rulemaking plans of each governmental agency.
Speaking of links, there’s a sub-heading to the left of the home page entitled just that—”Links.” Unfortunately, it’s still under construction. Moving on, you next find “Search RegRadar,” the button that allows you to find any term or phrase pertaining to your interest. Resisting my urge to punch in “Florida voters,” (and possibly bomb the network) I defer to the safer selection of “drinking water.” Instantly, six results flash on the screen with direct access to each regulation in detailed form.
Beware of the search
You’ll notice the majority of results stem from the same regulation. A note to keep in mind: I tried searching for arsenic and radon, and came up with nothing. Determined, I then proceeded to scroll to the “Taking Off” button, which posts regulations “officially proposed and open for public comment.” Can you say “arsenic”? Surprise, this too is under construction. I was turned away like an absentee ballot at a Bush rally. Ahh, the growing pains of a website geared to following the travails of governmental agencies.
Work in progress
As you may gather, the site still needs a lot of work ahead. But the foundation is definitely there for something useful to those, especially in the water treatment industry, whose lives and businesses are tied in with some of the regulations being set up in Washington. And, as evidenced in previous administrations, this is a key time when things get passed in anticipation of a potential overhaul in (insert an agency here).
In fact, some even speculated the current imbroglio over the arsenic standard could hinge on the outcome of the presidential race (who won that thing after all?). As of press time, the USEPA was believed to have its sights set on a standard of 5 parts per billion before President Clinton vacates the office. Just another example of midnight regulations rearing their head.
Before we leave you, a little background information on RegRadar.org. It’s the brainchild of economist Wendy Gramm, former chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and former administrator for Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Budget and Management (OMB). Her partner in the venture is Susan Dudley, also an economist formerly with the USEPA and the OMB, where she supervised the staff responsible for reviewing energy and environmental regulations.
When evaluating the effectiveness of this website, I keep going back to what Gramm said about it being almost “impossible” to track regulations from conception to law. That’s why the interactive component of RegRadar.org will take on an even greater importance as midnight regulations become less of a focus. A snide critic might even say that relying on “rumors” is a potentially dangerous, not to mention lazy, way of obtaining information that others rely on to be factual; i.e., read Sludge Report.
In RegRadar.org’s defense, as the tag line to “The X-Files” might say, the truth is out there. And sometimes beating the bushes (no presidential pun intended) is the only way to discover the facts behind a piece of legislation. And maybe even being informed and entertained during the trip. If not, check back in a couple of months and see if this site turns into a pumpkin after midnight (regulations).
Riding the wave of midnight regulations right now. Hopes it can use the momentum of the initial novelty and improved interactive functions to tackle the monumental task of keeping its eyes on the government for us. Bad news—a few of the buttons are currently under construction. Good news—increased legislation regarding water quality lends that much more importance to this site. The wild card may well be the site’s interactive capability.
BONUS: For those of you who recall the Schoolhouse Rock TV cartoon series—http://genxtvland.simplenet.com/SchoolHouseRock/