Business Lobby Presses Agenda Before '08 Vote
WASHINGTON -- Business lobbyists, nervously anticipating Democratic gains in next year's elections, are racing to secure final approval for a wide range of health, safety, labor and economic rules, in the belief that they can get better deals from the Bush administration than from its successor.
Hoping to lock in policies backed by a pro-business administration, poultry farmers are seeking an exemption for the smelly fumes produced by tons of chicken manure. Businesses are lobbying the Bush administration to roll back rules that let employees take time off for family needs and medical problems. And electric power companies are pushing the government to relax pollution-control requirements.
"There's a growing sense, a growing probability, that the next administration could be Democratic," said Craig L. Fuller, executive vice president of Apco Worldwide, a lobbying and public relations firm, who was a White House official in the Reagan administration. "Corporate executives, trade associations and lobbying firms have begun to recalibrate their strategies."
The Federal Register typically grows fat with regulations churned out in the final weeks of any administration. But the push for such rules has become unusually intense because of the possibility that Democrats in 2009 may consolidate control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in 14 years.
Even as they try to shape pending regulations, business lobbies are also looking beyond President Bush. Corporations and trade associations are recruiting Democratic lobbyists. And lobbyists, expecting battles over taxes and health care in 2009, are pouring money into the campaigns of Democratic candidates for Congress and the White House.
Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, said, "I am beefing up my staff, putting more money aside for economic analysis of regulations that I foresee coming out of a possible new Democratic administration."
At the Transportation Department, trucking companies are trying to get final approval for a rule increasing the maximum number of hours commercial truck drivers can work. And automakers are trying to persuade officials to set new standards for the strength of car roofs - standards far less stringent than what consumer advocates say is needed to protect riders in a rollover.
Business groups generally argue that federal regulations are onerous and needlessly add costs that are passed on to consumers, while their opponents accuse them of trying to whittle down regulations that are vital to safety and quality of life. Documents on file at several agencies show that business groups have stepped up lobbying in recent months, as they try to help the Bush administration finish work on rules that have been hotly debated and, in some cases, litigated for years.
At the Interior Department, coal companies are lobbying for a regulation that would allow them to dump rock and dirt from mountaintop mining operations into nearby streams and valleys. It would be prohibitively expensive to haul away the material, they say, and there are no waste sites in the area. Luke Popovich, a vice president of the National Mining Association, said that a Democratic president was more likely to side with "the greens."
A coalition of environmental groups has condemned the proposed rule, saying it would accelerate "the destruction of mountains, forests and streams throughout Appalachia."
A priority for many employers in 2008 is to secure changes in the rules for family and medical leave. Under a 1993 law, people who work for a company with 50 or more employees are generally entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn children or sick relatives or to tend to medical problems of their own. The Labor Department has signaled its interest in changes by soliciting public comments.
The National Association of Manufacturers said the law had been widely abused and had caused "a staggering loss of work hours" as employees took unscheduled, intermittent time off for health conditions that could not be verified. The use of such leave time tends to rise sharply before holiday weekends, on the day after Super Bowl Sunday and on the first day of the local hunting season, employers said.
Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group, said she was "very concerned that the Bush administration will issue new rules that cut back on family and medical leave for those who need it."
That could be done, for example, by narrowing the definition of a "serious health condition" or by establishing stricter requirements for taking intermittent leave for chronic conditions that flare up unexpectedly.
The Chamber of Commerce is seeking such changes. "We want to get this done before the election," Mr. Johnson said. "The next White House may be less hospitable to our position."
Indeed, most of the Democratic candidates for president have offered proposals to expand the 1993 law, to provide paid leave and to cover millions of additional workers. Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut was a principal author of the law. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York says it has been "enormously successful." And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois says that more generous family leave is an essential part of his plan to "reclaim the American dream."
Susan E. Dudley, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said, "Research suggests that regulatory activity increases in the final year of an administration, regardless of party."
Whoever becomes the next president, Democrat or Republican, will find that it is not so easy to make immediate and sweeping changes. The Supreme Court has held that a new president cannot arbitrarily revoke final regulations that already have the force of law. To undo such rules, a new administration must provide a compelling justification and go through a formal rule-making process, which can take months or years.
Within hours of taking office in 2001, Mr. Bush slammed the brakes on scores of regulations issued just before he took office, so his administration could review them. A study in the Wake Forest Law Review found that one-fifth of those "midnight regulations" were amended or repealed by the Bush administration, while four-fifths survived.
Some of the biggest battles now involve rules affecting the quality of air, water and soil.
The National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association have petitioned for an exemption from laws and rules that require them to report emissions of ammonia exceeding 100 pounds a day. They argue that "emissions from poultry houses pose little or no risk to public health" because the ammonia disperses quickly in the air.
Perdue Farms, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, said that it was "essentially impossible to provide an accurate estimate of any ammonia releases," and that a reporting requirement would place "an undue and useless burden" on farmers.
But environmental groups told the Bush administration that "ammonia emissions from poultry operations pose great risk to public health." And, they noted, a federal judge in Kentucky has found that farmers discharge ammonia from their barns, into the environment, so it will not sicken or kill the chickens.
On another issue, the Environmental Protection Agency is drafting final rules that would allow utility companies to modify coal-fired power plants and increase their emissions without installing new pollution-control equipment.
The Edison Electric Institute, the lobby for power companies, said the companies needed regulatory relief to meet the growing demand for "safe, reliable and affordable electricity."
But John D. Walke, director of the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the rules would be "the Bush administration's parting gift to the utility industry."
If Democrats gain seats in Congress or win the White House, that could pose problems for all-Republican lobbying firms like Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, whose founders include Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Loren Monroe, chief operating officer of the Barbour firm, said: "If the right person came along, we might hire a Democrat. And it's quite possible we could team up in an alliance with a Democratic firm."
Two executive recruiters, Ivan H. Adler of the McCormick Group and Nels B. Olson of Korn/Ferry International, said they had seen a growing demand for Democratic lobbyists. "It's a bull market for Democrats, especially those who have worked for the Congressional leadership" or a powerful committee, Mr. Adler said.
Few industries have more cause for concern than drug companies, which have been a favorite target of Democrats. Republicans run the Washington offices of most major drug companies, and a former Republican House member, Billy Tauzin, is president of their trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
The association has hired three Democrats this year, so its lobbying team is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a policy research organization, said: "Defense contractors have not only begun to prepare for the next administration. They have begun to shape it. They've met with Hillary Clinton and other candidates."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company