Nov 22, 2008

World - US;Bush's last rule-making hurrah

With just 60 days left in his tenure, you might think that W.'s lame-duck administration was sitting around relieved that another guy was taking over, and Bush was counting the minutes until his flight leaves for Crawford.

Not quite.

Based on the flurry of quiet directives coming from the White House as the end of the term nears, it looks like the Bush goose (or is it turducken?) isn't quite cooked yet.

In what has become a kind of presidential right-of-passage, the president (or really, the federal agencies that answer to him) has been pushing through a series of last-minute regulations that have the force of law. Everything from pollution controls to family-leave standards can be set by these rules.

And you thought your high school government teacher said that Congress made all the laws.

These de-facto laws are called "midnight rules" or "midnight regulations" because they happen at the end -- or midnight period -- of an administration. If the rules are published in the Federal Register by Friday, Nov. 21, they'll be very hard for President-elect Obama to reverse when he gets into office.

And that's the point. Sure, the administration had eight years to get a lot of this stuff accomplished. But according to senior research fellow at George Mason University, Veronique de Rugy, most midnight regulations "cater to special interests" and "that is why they are hurried into effect without the usual checks and balances."

George Bush isn't the first president to push through rules before the next guy can get in. Jimmy Carter gets that award. In fact, the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert says Carter's whirlwind of last-minute activity before Ronald Reagan took office is when the practice got named. "They became known as 'midnight regulations,' after the 'midnight judges' appointed by John Adams in the final hours of his presidency."

George Bush doesn't get the award for the most rules shoved through after the two-minute warning either. That goes to Bill Clinton who, according to de Rugy, set the record for number of last-minute pages published in the Federal Register at "more than 26,000."

So, what rules are the White House and all its federal agencies trying to get through this season?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the new rules, "open the way for commercial development of oil shale on federal land, allow truckers to drive for longer periods, and add certain restrictions on employee time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act."

Those run the gamut, but the ones getting the most press are environmentally focused. The Los Angeles Times says environmentalists are angry by a host of loosened safeguards:

In recent days, the Bush administration announced new rules to speed oil shale development across 2 million rocky acres in the West. It scheduled an auction for drilling rights alongside three national parks. It has also set in motion processes to finalize major changes in endangered species protection, allow more mining waste to flow into rivers and streams, and exempt factory farms from air pollution reporting.

The Chicago Tribune did a special report saying the administration undercut a clean-air rule aimed at curbing childhood lead poisoning:

...the EPA had planned to require lead monitors next to any factory emitting at least a half-ton of lead a year. But after the White House intervened, the agency raised the threshold to a ton of lead or more, according to e-mails and other documents exchanged between the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget.

In an Oct. 31 press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto was asked about environmental groups saying the White House was easing limits on pollution. First Fratto responded that the White House is "constrained" about discussing regulations under review, but then said, "I would be highly doubtful that there's any specific increase in environmental-related regulations."

Navigating the rule-making process can be laborious for the non-wonk type, but the non-profit, investigative journalism group ProPublica has tried to make it easy for people who want to investigate for themselves. ProPublica has a master list of Bush's midnight regulations here, and the group posted a guide on "How to Ferret Out Midnight Regs Yourself." If you've got the time and inclination, a lot of this process is public record and online.

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