Republican congressional aide Barbara Kahlow sent the e-mail to a dozen business lobbyists on Sept. 26: "Here's our non-public chart," it said. She underlined "non-public" and put it in boldface.
"This was hush-hush, behind-closed-doors stuff," one of the lobbyists recalled.
Kahlow explained in her e-mail that President Bush's new regulatory czar, John D. Graham, had "asked me to convene key lobbyists to identify and rank" regulations that business groups found overly burdensome.
Her chart listed 57 of the most paperwork-intensive rules the business community wants to target. The rules, which deal with health, safety and the environment, govern everything from pesticide use to coal-mine ventilation, to standards for blood-borne pathogens. They cover such areas as air and water quality, food labeling, lead-paint disclosure, truck safety inspections, toxic-release reporting, and family and medical leave.
Graham, who became administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget in July, after a nasty confirmation fight, acknowledged last week that he had invited Kahlow and others to let him know about overly burdensome regulations. But he said he had not seen Kahlow's chart of 57 "sunset review candidates" and pledged not to change any regulations without input from affected agencies and the public.
Still, the chart and other documents from a fledgling anti-paperwork campaign provide another glimpse of behind-the-scenes strategy-setting by business lobbyists and conservative Republicans in government, during the Bush administration. In April, an industry memo urged lobbyists to get "DRESSED DOWN" like "REAL WORKER types" for an event promoting the GOP tax cut's impact on blue-collar families. In May, an energy lobbyist asking people to pay $5,000 to join a corporate coalition to push the president's energy bill warned in a letter that absolute unity was a must: "I have been advised that this White House will 'have a long memory.' "
Now there is Kahlow's e-mail announcing an Oct. 2 meeting with trade-group lobbyists and GOP staffers to discuss the 57 regulations. "We intend to share the group's list with [Graham] confidentially," wrote Kahlow, who served for 25 years as an OIRA official before becoming deputy director of the House subcommittee overseeing federal regulations. Her e-mail went out to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Business Roundtable, the American Farm Bureau, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Associated General Contractors of America and the Small Business Survival Committee.
The e-mail and the chart were provided to The Washington Post by a lobbyist who attended the meeting, in the House Rayburn Building. The lobbyist said he was disturbed by what he perceived as an "underhanded" campaign to use obscure paperwork guidelines as a back-door mechanism to gut long-established regulations. He said he was told that the campaign had Graham's blessing, if not his fingerprints. The campaign is being run out of the House Government Reform subcommittee on energy policy, natural resources and regulatory affairs, which is chaired by Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.), who is Kahlow's boss.
"This was a secret campaign to circumvent the process," said the lobbyist, who asked not to be named. "With Graham in that job, we figured we could get whatever we want."
Graham's background proved controversial when he was named to oversee the federal government's various rules. He founded the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a think tank that is funded in large part by industry groups and individual businesses and that has argued that many regulations and policies are misguided.
Graham's nomination as head of OIRA was opposed by liberal groups and Democrats, who declared him an enemy of regulations. He responded that he supported cost-effective, science-based regulations that promoted public health and welfare and was confirmed by a 61-37 vote.
In September, he signaled his intent to take an activist role in a memo to his staff, warning that "if not properly developed, regulations can lead to an enormous burden on the economy."
In an interview, though, Graham said trade groups might be surprised if they think they will get "whatever they want" in his tenure. He said he had invited business lobbyists and congressional aides to approach him to discuss bad regulations, but that he did not remember telling Kahlow to "convene key lobbyists" to pursue candidates for "paperwork & regulatory burden reduction," as her e-mail said. And echoing a point made by his liberal critics, he emphasized that just because a regulation is onerous does not mean it is bad.
"I am happy to meet personally with lobbyists of all stripes to discuss burdensome paperwork and regulatory requirements," Graham said. "However, OMB will not order changes without considering the public benefits of these requirements."
Joan Claybrook, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said she wasn't surprised that Graham didn't remember telling Kahlow to convene lobbyists. She said he often replied to questions at his confirmation hearing by saying that he didn't remember. She warned that the Bush administration and its supporters in the business community had launched a campaign to roll back health and safety regulations that protect ordinary people from corporate malfeasance.
"There's no question where all this is headed," she said. "These lobbyists have no shame."
Kahlow declined to comment. But it is no secret that business-friendly Republicans in general and on Ose's committee in particular have pushed to rein in regulations and paperwork. In August, Graham's staff gave Kahlow a computer printout of government rules that produced more than 1 million hours of paperwork a year. Ose then asked OMB to evaluate some of them, governing new drugs, sewage sludge disposal and "safety management of highly hazardous chemicals."
Kahlow then whittled the printout down to 57 "candidates for discussion" before the Oct. 2 meeting. The goal, several attendees said, was not just to reduce unnecessary paperwork, but to persuade Graham to use little-known provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act to try to weaken paperwork-intensive regulations.
Jim Tozzi, Kahlow's former boss at OIRA, said in an interview that he used to do just that, using paperwork technicalities as an excuse to review otherwise untouchable rules. "I have to plead guilty to that," said Tozzi, who is now on the advisory board at the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. "The paperwork is a way in, you know?"
Another lobbyist who attended the Oct. 2 meeting said that even though Graham was not present, he was almost there in spirit.
"There was the implication that it was something he would want done, if you catch the fine line there," said this lobbyist, who also asked not to be named.
But Bill Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for regulatory affairs, said that even though his group supported the goal of reducing government regulations, it was not impressed with the strategies floated on Oct. 2. He supports a more systematic attack.
"You can't just put 57 regulations on the table and say, 'Go to it,' " said Kovacs, who did not attend the Oct. 2 meeting but sent three staffers. "It would be political suicide."
Some of the 57 regulations, after all, are potentially inflammatory. For example, some business groups would like to reshape the Family and Medical Leave Act to stop parents from taking their leave in small increments, but that could have significant political consequences. Unions would fight any changes to the so-called Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage rules on government construction projects. The Bush administration might be reluctant to tinker with food labeling rules, "needlestick safety" standards for hospital workers and community right-to-know requirements that force industries to disclose their toxic chemicals.
But regardless of the politics, the business community believes that many regulations provide negligible benefits to consumers or workers while inflicting unbearable costs to entrepreneurs. Larry Fineran, a National Association of Manufacturers lobbyist who attended the Oct. 2 meeting, said that paperwork was as good a place to start slimming down as any.
"The cost is just enormous," Fineran said. "And so far, nobody's done much about it."
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