While everyone watches Florida as we attempt to choose the next president of the United States, we shouldn't forget that we still have a very active, engaged and ideologically committed president in Washington, D.C. While the media are distracted by the post-election furor, the Clinton administration has been regulating the dickens out of an economy that shows every indication of slowing, if not actually falling into recession.
Tax rates are too high, the Fed is keeping interest rates too high and Congress has been on a spending binge. Corporate profits are down, the rate of investment has declined and uncertainty is rising. On top of it all, President Bill Clinton is piling on with an end-of-term regulatory onslaught.
Clinton and his minions are busy making dozens of regulatory decisions that will influence the way we live, work and invest for years to come - all the way from much-disputed and highly intrusive ergonomics rules designed to force widespread alterations in the workplace environment to new "emissions controls" on carbon dioxide designed to foist the Kyoto global-warming treaty on a unwary public. This lame duck won't let go of the regulatory levers a moment before he has to.
The Clinton years have been the Age of Regulation - a "legacy" that doesn't get nearly enough attention. The Heritage Foundation, for example, cites General Accounting Office studies showing that by 1998, the Code of Federal Regulations grew to nearly 135,000 pages after hitting a low of under 51,000 pages in 1986 (late in the Reagan presidency).
That trend should trouble all Americans because it hits them right in the pocketbook. The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates the total federal regulatory burden to be $700 billion, bigger than Canada's entire economy and equal to a hidden tax of about $7,500 a year for the typical two-earner family.
The new ergonomics rule from OSHA is the most notorious example of end-game regulation, published while Congress is in recess despite ongoing negotiations in Congress over what was supposed to be a good-faith compromise. This new rule would affect every workplace in the country based on uncertain evidence of workplace health risks, would micromanage every employment setting and would cost Americans between $4 billion (OSHA's low-end guess) and $100 billion (according to the Employment Policy Foundation).
The administration is continuing its policy of aggressive and economically ill-advised antitrust initiatives in holding up the AOL-Time Warner merger, imposing new and costly appliance standards for "energy efficiency" that will hit poor people hardest, pushing new plant emissions standards that produce marginal benefits at great cost and sequestering thousands of acres of public lands from productive economic use.
Innovation and adaptability are the watchwords of the New Economy that has brought us such unprecedented prosperity and empowered lower-income and minority Americans to dream of a better future. As Jim Glassman points out at TechCentralStation.com, it's not just Clinton's executive actions that matter in the regulatory arena but the so-called independent regulators like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission (dominated by Clinton appointees) that have critical power over New Economy industries like telecommunications. On such issues as online privacy and introducing new broadband services, these regulators have told the private sector to go slowly while launching new regulatory initiatives to solve problems that are changing and even disappearing at the speed of light.
Presidents, even lame ducks, have a right and duty to exercise their constitutional powers. But a president with a sense of probity and duty should know when the game is over and defer major policy decisions to his successor or to Congress, which after all is closer to the people. By pushing the regulatory envelope, stretching executive prerogative beyond all reasonable bounds and piling regulation upon regulation with no regard for the true cost to the country, Clinton has put the economy truly at risk and undermined his chance for a legacy of economic hope and opportunity. It will be up to the new president and Congress to undo or at least slow down this mischief, a problem with far-reaching implications to which the news media pay far too little attention.