News Intelligence Analysis
Originally published in the New York Times
December 31, 2003
Bush Embraces Some Regulations as Election Approaches
By DAVID E. SANGER
CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 30 The Bush administration's twin moves on Tuesday to ban the dietary supplement ephedra and the sale of meat from cows that appear to be sick on the way to the slaughterhouse underscores a simple White House maxim these days: with an election approaching, even a president who came to office assailing government regulation cannot do too much to protect consumers.
By all accounts, there was no grand political plan to embrace government activism suddenly events forced the administration's hand. Ephedra's fate has seemed clear since a 23-year-old pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles died after taking it early this year, though this is the first time the Food and Drug Administration has banned such an herbal supplement. And with mad cow disease suddenly dominating every cable channel and front page, Mr. Bush and a small clutch of his aides staring out at the cattle grazing his ranch knew they had to appear to be taking action. In this case, the action included some protective steps they rejected as unnecessary just months ago.
In fact, quietly, in ways few would notice, Mr. Bush's aides have been doing everything they could think of in recent months to inoculate Mr. Bush against accusations that the war in Iraq has led him to ignore risks and annoyances of everyday life.
The man who drew cheers in 2000 by promising to roll back government interference with the private markets has, in recent months, gladly signed legislation to restrict telemarketing and e-mail spam, and boasts at fund-raisers that he will lock up executives who abuse the public trust in their companies. It is a line that always draws big cheers, a reflection of how the political atmospherics about big government have changed in the three years Mr. Bush has been in office.
"As far as I can tell, he has not uttered the word `deregulation' since 2001," said James L. Gattuso, a research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, who recently completed a study of regulation in the Bush era. "This stuff about the antiregulation president is a Howard Dean myth," he argued.
That is certainly the way Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, would like to position Mr. Bush in the coming year. An so, in the last week of 2003, the Bush administration has suddenly reached back to the politics of Theodore Roosevelt, who instantly rode the political winds after Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," sending his own agents to the Chicago stockyards and pressing for the first Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1907.
Mr. Bush, who used to keep a volume of T.R.'s speeches on his coffee table here, has so far said little about the efforts to contain mad cow disease. But he is expected to address the issue on Wednesday, when the residents of this small farming town expect him to show up as he traditionally does on Dec. 31 at the local diner for his favorite cheeseburger special.
The actions on Tuesday enable him to answer his Democratic challengers, who since Sunday have been issuing broadsides against the administration for waiting too long to act. "The new policy is too little and much of it is too late," Representative Richard A. Gephardt said on Tuesday. "Many of the measures should have been taken immediately when we knew that the deadly disease was a threat to our food supply." Both Mr. Gephardt and Senator John Kerry issued plans this week to deal with the issue; many of those steps were taken by the Agriculture Department on Tuesday.
"It's a time to be cautious," one of Mr. Bush's aides in Washington said late on Tuesday, when asked about the seeming rush to enact rules that have been debated, to little effect, for many months. "You want to make judgments based on good science, but also on maintaining confidence."
Election-year moves toward consumer regulation are hardly a new invention. Bill Clinton announced the end of the "sniff and poke method" of inspecting meat in the summer of 1996, just as he was up for re-election, when the issue was salmonella poisoning, not mad cows. It was Mr. Clinton's F.D.A. that also proposed, at the beginning of his second term, a warning label on supplements containing ephedra, but his administration backed away in the face of industry complaints that the supplement's links to strokes and heart troubles were unconvincing.
The administration acted after doing a study but also after California, New York and other states moved ahead of the federal government in banning sales. It was not until Tuesday that Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, declared: "Today's action tells consumers the time to stop using these supplements is now."
Those were not the kind of words heard from this administration in 2001. At that time there was a freeze on most Clinton-era regulations that were pending. Mr. Bush very publicly rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming, and environmental regulations like the one that sharply restricted commercial activity in roadless areas of national forests.
But Kyoto is now regarded inside the White House as a good decision that was presented in the clumsiest possible way opening Mr. Bush to accusations that he was a shill for big business. Soon, the White House began to sound a little less strident about regulation. After halting a Clinton-era regulation on acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water, Mr. Bush adopted those regulations. Indeed, Mr. Gattusso sees no decline in overall government regulation in the Bush years he counts 75,000 pages of the Federal Register filled with new rules this year. It is the kind of statistic Mr. Bush liked to cite in less than complementary terms in the last presidential election.
Some experts say the administration has more than politics in mind as it approaches new regulations. "The key to understanding this administration's approach to regulation comes in three words: cost-benefit analysis," said Robert Hahn, the director of the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, run by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. "This balancing approach will surely raise the hackles of some conservative and liberal ideologues. But it's the right approach to policy."
In the coming year, it may also be the right approach to politics. On the campaign trail, Mr. Bush will no doubt appeal to patriotism with talk about Iraq and Sept. 11, portray his tax cuts as the key to economic recovery and appeal, as he does at each stop, for every citizen to help a neighbor. But he may also remember what Upton Sinclair said about the political movement touched off when he revealed conditions in the slaughterhouses. "I aimed at the public's heart," he said later, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
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