WASHINGTON -- President Bush, believing that he has hit on a winning theme with the American voter, said yesterday he will extend for another four months an election-year crusade to cut, weaken or eliminate government red tape.
A freeze on new government regulations, already in place since January, will continue through August as administration officials try to weed out proposals that, in their view, offer health and safety benefits that are not worth the extra costs they add to doing business.
"Our objective must be to stop new rules that hurt growth while speeding up new rules to help our economy," the president declared at a Rose Garden ceremony. "During the next 120 days I expect many more gains for freedom and common sense."
Mr. Bush's announcement was immediately condemned by environmental and public interest groups, who claimed the president was trying to shore up support among business leaders by essentially undoing protections enacted by Congress.
"No one wants to have silly regulations and needless red tape, but neither do people want important protections of the public's health held hostage to politics," said Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
"Unfortunately, this administration, like the Carter administration NTC before it, is looking for someone to blame for our hard economic times," he said.
Mr. Bush claimed that actions already taken to curb regulations during the 90-day moratorium announced in his State of the Union address would save businesses $15 billion to $20 billion a year.
He said this would translate into savings of $225 to $300 a year for the average family, which would otherwise be asked to absorb thesecosts.
But the White House provided no documentation of the figures, and officials were at a loss to explain how they were arrived at.
"These are make-believe numbers, pulled out of who knows where," said Nancy Watzman of Public Citizen, a liberal lobby group.
Mr. Bush first made a name for himself as a red-tape cutter while serving as vice president under Ronald Reagan. But little was heard about deregulation in the first three years of the Bush administration.
In fact, two of the new laws considered most burdensome by businesses were cited by the president last year as his principal domestic achievements -- the Clean Air Act of 1990, which calls for new protections for the environment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates access for the handicapped.
By January of this year, however, the climate had changed. The economy was in recession, and Mr. Bush was trying to become what his aides call an "agent of change."
One step, promoted by Vice President Dan Quayle and Mr. Bush's campaign advisers, was to appeal to the sentiments of those who, as the president said yesterday, want "the government off our backs."
The administration credited the reform drive with accelerated approval of new drugs for cancer and AIDS and lower financing costs as a result of regulatory changes governing the financial industry.
But implementation of the Clean Air Act has become a major casualty of anti-regulatory zeal. Even though Mr. Bush vowed in 1988 to become the "environmental president," he now believes the political pendulum has swung away from environmental protection and toward protecting jobs.
Delighted business leaders who attended the Rose Garden ceremony yesterday said they didn't mind if the motive was politics.