Quayle Makes Tracks

Ernest Furgurson

December 21, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — Washington---EVERY DAY, Americans pay for the savings-and-loan mess, made possible by deregulation of the industry. Airline deregulation encouraged cancellation of less profitable routes, so thousands of Americans now fly thousands of miles out of their way.

This month, one of the many philosophical debates within the Bush administration has been over Robert Clarke, comptroller of the currency. John Sununu, the White House chief of staff and chief ideological watchdog, opposed Mr. Clarke's reappointment on grounds that he was too independent -- i.e., he believed in doing his job, which includes bank regulation.

Just this week, Bill Reilly, the Environmental Protection Agency head, backed down on a trash-recycling proposal after it had gotten an earlier go signal from the administration. The program was vetoed by a White House council whose franchise is to protect industry from over-regulation.

That council is Mr. Bush's way of assuring business that he will not tolerate slippage in the anti-government crusade he chaired during the Reagan administration. The chairman of today's effort is his successor, Dan Quayle. One difference between the two vice presidents' deregulation efforts is that Mr. Bush's was designated a Task Force, which suggested bold action, while Mr. Quayle's is the Presidential Council on Competitiveness, implying calm deliberation and business judgment.

During the Eighties, Mr. Bush also headed the drug-interdiction campaign, meant to cut off the flow of illegal narcotics from south of the border. Since then, he has not felt the need to trumpet his accomplishments in either of those jobs.

When the S&L scandal first barged into the national consciousness, investigators were asked repeatedly what Mr. Bush's deregulation task force had to do with it. They answered repeatedly that they had found no Bush tracks at all.

The main purpose of these special vice-presidential assignments has not been to get the job done; there are hundreds of bureaucrats who know how to do it better. It is a public-relations gesture, (a) to associate the administration and the vice president with what are considered politically desirable goals, and (b) to give the impression that the No. 2 man has something more substantive to do than attend second-level foreign funerals.

Vice presidents have been eager for these titles because the the causes involved are particularly precious to the party's true believers, those to whom jubilee was January 20, 1981, the day a new president said in his inaugural address, ''government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.'' They are the Republicans who nominate presidents.

Thus it came as a mild surprise when Mr. Quayle's council this week rejected the EPA recycling standards, proposed with new air-pollution controls for municipal incinerators. Although the council is not a constitutionally official body, its power makes clear the priority this White House assigns to continuing deregulation. While the Office of Management and Budget already has authority to enforce administration ideology by overruling agency decisions, Mr. Quayle's council has a higher level of power, to overrule OMB.

The surprise this week was not that the council opposed regulation, which it is commissioned to do. In the case at hand, not only business but local governments objected to the recycling idea, which some said would mean an unacceptable boost in their garbage-disposal costs. The rule would have required separation of garbage that produces toxic waste when burned, such as batteries, some plastics and metals. Recycling also would ease the pressure on municipal landfills, already near capacity. But today's budget crunch is more urgent to local governments.

Nor was it surprising that a body of the Bush administration reversed a previous position. That has become S.O.P. on any controversial issue. What broke precedent was that the Quayle council made a specific decision, and its action was put on the record for all to see in the future.

It is not likely that as a result, fumes from battery acid will soon fill the air and everybody will have to dispose of garbage in the back yard. But things are sure to get worse. In that case Mr. Quayle, should he astonish the nation by offering himself for president in 1996, may wish he had learned from his boss the technique of speaking boldly but leaving no tracks.

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