Enforcement of new laws often delayed Stalling in agencies, Congress' directives blamed for problem

March 31, 1991|By Robert Pear | Robert Pear,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Because of bureaucratic foot-dragging, complex directives from Congress and in some cases ideological hostility, the federal government has failed to carry out major parts of health, environmental and housing laws passed with much fanfare in recent years.

The delays have left Congress stymied, consumer groups frustrated and businesses sometimes paralyzed in the absence of prescribed regulations.

Bush administration officials acknowledge that they have missed many of the deadlines set by Congress for the new laws. But they say Congress is partly to blame because it writes laws of impenetrable complexity with countless mandates and gives federal agencies insufficient time to write needed regulations.

No one knows exactly how many laws are affected, but federal officials say the problem has become more widespread in recent years. They cite these examples:

* Two decades after Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to identify and regulate "hazardous air pollutants," the agency has issued emission standards for only seven chemicals.

* In 1987, Congress established a comprehensive program of assistance to homeless people. But recently U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch accused the administration of a "complete failure" to comply with the law, saying "pitifully few" unused federal properties had been made available to assist the homeless.

* A 1986 law requiring health warnings in advertisements for snuff and chewing tobacco was not fully enforced until this month, when the Federal Trade Commission issued final rules. Federal courts have castigated the agency for the delays.

* The government has yet to issue final regulations for cleaning up waste storage sites under a 1984 law. As a result, thousands of companies are operating "under a cloud of doubt and uncertainty," said Theresa Pugh, director of environmental quality at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Congress, lobbyists, the White House and millions of Americans typically focus on legislative battles, assuming that a bill takes effect when signed by the president. But the partisan sparring over legislation often continues long after it is signed into law.

"There are a million ways for recalcitrant federal agencies to vitiate a law," said Representative Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "It is extraordinarily frustrating. Contrary to what civics textbooks might suggest, passing legislation today is just the very first step.

"After that, you have to run through a veritable gantlet of administrative processes and procedures to get the law carried out."

The Reagan administration sometimes used administrative delays as a device to enforce its philosophy of less government and to save money, and Congress responded by imposing more specific mandates and tighter deadlines, creating a cycle that aggravated the problem.

Bush administration officials deny that they have intentionally sidestepped deadlines for ideological reasons.

Thomas E. Kelly, who coordinates the writing of regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency, said: "We take deadlines with deadly seriousness and try to meet them.

"But when they are stupid or absurd, they ultimately corrode our ability to sustain the heroic efforts needed to do a high-quality job."

James M. Strock, enforcement director of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1989 through this February, said the delays have led to a vicious circle:

When Congress feels that an agency is moving too slowly, it sets deadlines. The agency fails to meet them, generating further disappointment and distrust on Capitol Hill. So lawmakers set tighter deadlines and more detailed requirements, which the agency finds even more difficult to meet.

Congressional frustration has become much more obvious in the last two years as Congress frequently dictates that new laws shall take effect on a particular date, "without regard to whether or not final regulations have been promulgated by such date."

Agency officials and members of Congress list many reasons for delays in carrying out laws.

For example, they say, Congress writes huge amounts of detail into the laws, specifying hundreds of requirements that would once have been left to the discretion of agency officials.

Laws relating to pollution, immigration, Medicare, Medicaid and other benefit programs have become almost as complex as the tax code. And the rules needed to carry out such laws are more complex than the laws.

Federal officials sometimes drag their feet in carrying out a law they dislike. Disagreements over new laws are common after a decade in which Republicans controlled the White House and Democrats dominated Congress.

Michael J. Horowitz, counsel to the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1981 to 1985, said Reagan administration officials often viewed "non-enforcement of the law" as an easy way to deal with statutes and regulations they disliked.

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