After spending eight years at the
helm of one of the most ideologically driven administrations in
American history, George W. Bush is ending his presidency in
characteristically aggressive fashion, with a swath of controversial
measures designed to reward supporters and enrage opponents.
the time he vacates the White House, he will have issued a record
number of so-called 'midnight regulations' - so called because of the
stealthy way they appear on the rule books - to undermine the
administration of Barack Obama, many of which could take years to undo.
of new rules have already been introduced which critics say will
diminish worker safety, pollute the environment, promote gun use and
curtail abortion rights. Many rules promote the interests of large
industries, such as coal mining or energy, which have energetically
supported Bush during his two terms as president. More are expected
America's attention is focused on the fate of the
beleaguered car industry, still seeking backing in Washington for a
multi-billion-dollar bail-out. But behind the scenes, the 'midnight'
rules are being rushed through with little fanfare and minimal media
attention. None of them would be likely to appeal to the incoming Obama
The regulations cover a vast policy area, ranging from
healthcare to car safety to civil liberties. Many are focused on the
environment and seek to ease regulations that limit pollution or restrict harmful industrial practices, such as dumping strip-mining waste.
Bush moves have outraged many watchdog groups. 'The regulations we have
seen so far have been pretty bad,' said Matt Madia, a regulatory policy
analyst at OMB Watch. 'The effects of all this are going to be severe.'
can pass the rules because of a loophole in US law allowing him to put
last-minute regulations into the Code of Federal Regulations, rules
that have the same force as law. He can carry out many of his political
aims without needing to force new laws through Congress. Outgoing
presidents often use the loophole in their last weeks in office, but
Bush has done this far more than Bill Clinton or his father, George Bush sr. He is on track to issue more 'midnight regulations' than any other previous president.
of these are radical and appear to pay off big business allies of the
Republican party. One rule will make it easier for coal companies to
dump debris from strip mining into valleys and streams. The process is
part of an environmentally damaging technique known as 'mountain-top
removal mining'. It involves literally removing the top of a mountain
to excavate a coal seam and pouring the debris into a valley, which is
then filled up with rock. The new rule will make that dumping easier.
midnight regulation will allow power companies to build coal-fired
power stations nearer to national parks. Yet another regulation will
allow coal-fired stations to increase their emissions without
installing new anti-pollution equipment.
Defence Fund has called the moves a 'fire sale of epic size for coal'.
Other environmental groups agree. 'The only motivation for some of
these rules is to benefit the business interests that the Bush
administration has served,' said Ed Hopkins, a director of
environmental quality at the Sierra Club. A case in point would seem to
be a rule that opens up millions of acres of land to oil shale
extraction, which environmental groups say is highly pollutant.
is a long list of other new regulations that have gone onto the books.
One lengthens the number of hours that truck drivers can drive without
rest. Another surrenders government control of rerouting the rail
transport of hazardous materials around densely populated areas and
gives it to the rail companies.
One more chips away at the
protection of endangered species. Gun control is also weakened by
allowing loaded and concealed guns to be carried in national parks.
Abortion rights are hit by allowing healthcare workers to cite
religious or moral grounds for opting out of carrying out certain
A common theme is shifting regulation of
industry from government to the industries themselves, essentially
promoting self-regulation. One rule transfers assessment of the impact
of ocean-fishing away from federal inspectors to advisory groups linked
to the fishing industry. Another allows factory farms to self-regulate
disposal of pollutant run-off.
The White House denies it is
sabotaging the new administration. It says many of the moves have been
openly flagged for months. The spate of rules is going to be hard for
Obama to quickly overcome. By issuing them early in the 'lame duck'
period of office, the Bush administration has mostly dodged 30- or
60-day time limits that would have made undoing them relatively
Obama's team will have to go through a more
lengthy process of reversing them, as it is forced to open them to a
period of public consulting. That means that undoing the damage could
take months or even years, especially if corporations go to the courts
to prevent changes.
At the same time, the Obama team will have a
huge agenda on its plate as it inherits the economic crisis.
Nevertheless, anti-midnight regulation groups are lobbying Obama's
transition team to make sure Bush's new rules are changed as soon as
possible. 'They are aware of this. The transition team has a list of
things they want to undo,' said Madia.
Bush's midnight regulations will:
- Make it easier for coal companies to dump waste from strip-mining into valleys and streams.
- Ease the building of coal-fired power stations nearer to national parks.
- Allow people to carry loaded and concealed weapons in national parks.
- Open up millions of acres to mining for oil shale.
- Allow healthcare workers to opt out of giving treatment for religious or moral reasons, thus weakening abortion rights.
- Hurt road safety by allowing truck drivers to stay at the wheel for 11 consecutive hours.