When Big Business Needs a Favor, George Bush Gets the Call
Bush, nevertheless, targeted the regulation for revision and possible repeal. But this “reform” was subsequently derailed by two unforeseen events: a political scandal and more scientific evidence. Late in 1981, EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch held a meeting in her office, arranged by a Republican senator, with a small refiner from New Mexico who was worried about violating the lead rule. The refiner wanted an official waiver from compliance, but Gorsuch assured the businessman that wasn’t necessary. “She noted that EPA’s lead phase-down regulations would probably be revised and perhaps even abolished during the course of the upcoming rule-making, in accordance with Vice President Bush’s expressed intentions,” according to sworn testimony taken later by the EPA inspector general.
Was the EPA administrator advising the company to ignore the law? After the meeting, according to another witness, Gorsuch spoke privately with one of the participants “and explained to him that she couldn’t actually tell us to go out and break the law, but she hoped that we had gotten the message.”
When this transaction was uncovered by House investigators in 1982, Reagan’s EPA was embarrassed by its first smell of scandal. At the same moment, public outrage was fueled by new studies confirming what EPA scientists had always known about lead poisoning. One new study by the government’s Centers for Disease Control concluded that the lead regulation would produce public benefits of $1 billion to $5 billion a year, compared with the estimated industry costs of $100 million.
EPA officials, including the much maligned Gorsuch, now had the upper hand in the argument. The congressional elections of ’82 were approaching, and the Reagan administration was accused on many fronts of favoring business at public expense. EPA published a revised rule, despite White House resistance, that actually tightened the lead standard. Gray and others now take credit for a regulation they actually tried to prevent.
There were many other instances, large and small, when White House experts tried to sell unscientific or economic arguments that simply wouldn’t stand up under close scrutiny. When OSHA was drafting its cotton-dust standard for the textile industry, Christopher DeMuth, Miller’s successor as task-force director, revived an old industry proposal that textile workers should wear respirators as protection against brown-lung disease, a far cheaper solution than compelling factories to install engineering devices to control cotton dust. To support his position, DeMuth cited a new industry-sponsored study that, he claimed, confirmed that respirators were the plausible solution. Trouble is, the professor who’d conducted the study said his report suggested no such thing.
In another instance, DeMuth advanced the proposition that radioactive waste does not require the ultracautious disposal techniques envisioned by federal regulators. The spent fuel didn’t need to be buried so deep or sealed so rigorously, DeMuth argued, because government records of its whereabouts would always be available to future generations. He was literally shouted down by Gorsuch, who was backed up by experts from EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.
Everyone, of course, denies that political calculation and connections become intertwined with straight-and-narrow arguments over costs or public health. But contradictory evidence has turned up in a number of cases. In one internal argument over worker health standards, OSHA secretary Thorne G. Auchter blatantly invoked political motivation in discussions with White House regulatory overseers.
“Labor has not yet been given a cudgel with which to beat this administration,” Auchter warned the task force in a private briefing book prepared for the secretary of labor. “Failure to act on this matter will provide one. Recent articles point to the Democratic party’s efforts to rebuild its ties to the labor movement by painting this administration as antiworker. Let us not ignore political reality.”
An EPA official who revised the rules on radioactive-waste dumps sent an unpublished draft to the White House for approval. A few days later, the EPA staffer got a call from a General Electric executive eager to comment on the new proposal. Only EPA hadn’t asked for public comments yet or distributed the draft to anyone. Apparently, someone at OMB had shared the document with certain privileged corporate interests before it was made public.
Certainly, some of the people asking for favors thought their political connections would be helpful. A California oilman who’d served in the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 personally thanked the vice-president for his office’s help on the EPA lead standard. And a druggist, one among scores who complained about a proposal for patient warnings on ten drugs with potentially harmful side effects, wrote the vice-president: “I am the druggist from Alaska…and National Committeeman for Alaska who arranged for your press conference in Anchorage in 1978….I also cast the Alaskan delegation vote for you at the 1980 national convention after the delegation chairman refused to do so.”
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