There's a Lot a President Can Do On His Own

January 03, 1993|By VIVECA NOVAK

For Ronald Reagan in 1981, it was just that simple. Bam. All regulations issued in the waning days of the Carter Administration were frozen. Bam. New rules henceforth would be sifted through layers of cost-benefit analysis by hard-nosed White House watchdogs. Bam. A vice-presidential task force would coordinate the new regime's deregulatory agenda.

Within just a few weeks the shape of Mr. Reagan's presidency was firmly set. He didn't need much help from Congress; in the early days, administrative fiat proved enough muscle to give some substance to Mr. Reagan's campaign pledge to get the government off the back of the private sector.

With the Reagan Revolution in mind, people are looking for clues to how Bill Clinton will kick off his term. Responsibility for the most important items on his list will have to be shared with Congress -- economic stimulus, health care reform, welfare changes. But in many areas, Mr. Clinton can make a difference, )) both substantively and symbolically, from the moment he takes the oath. John Kennedy created the Peace Corps, for example, with the stroke of a pen in his first six weeks.

"Setting the tone is terribly important," Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said. "We are seeing a president for change," much as Mr. Reagan was, and "He's got to use the White House as a bully pulpit."

Mr. Clinton has mentioned several things he wants to address right off the bat: lifting the abortion "gag" rule for family planning clinics, opening the armed services to gays, doing away with the ban on federally financed fetal tissue research and allowing Haitian refugees to plead for asylum.

But there is potential for much more, if he fully uses his power to issue executive orders, begin rule-makings, stop or reverse regulations in the works or even the books, redirect the priorities of agencies and reorganize the executive branch's workings. And in fact Mr. Clinton's transition operation has a small cadre of attorneys devoted to identifying and drafting administrative actions he can take right away.

Still, while interest groups and think tanks have been hungrily eyeing the possibilities, Mr. Clinton is unlikely to storm into Washington trying to right every perceived wrong of the past dozen years.

For one thing, said Paul R. Portney, vice president of Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank, Mr. Clinton knows "that the major issues in voters' minds is the economy. That is inconsistent with an ambitious new expansion of the regulatory agenda at EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] or

anywhere else."

Mr. Clinton may not want to go too far too often without the validation of congressional action. And there are limits to what he can do; reversing a final regulation means going back through a full rule-making cycle, and courts view such moves suspiciously. Mr. Reagan's cancellation of a Carter-era rule requiring air bags in autos was struck down by the Supreme Court as being too "arbitrary and capricious."

All that aside, the suggested game plans to help Mr. Clinton hit full stride on day one are pouring in. Herewith some of the thoughts on administrative options that are piling up in Little Rock.

Abortion Reversals

Abortion policy is an area where Mr. Clinton can satisfy his backers without costing anyone much money. Certainly his judicial picks will be more sympathetic to the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion than those of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush, and the government's posture on abortion cases going before the Supreme Court will do an about-face. Among other top priorities for pro-choice advocates, most of which Mr. Clinton has committed to:

* Do away with the gag rule by which the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) in 1988 barred federally financed family planning clinics from providing women with abortion information. A federal appeals court recently suspended enforcement of the rule.

* Cancel the ban on federal financing of fetal tissue transplant research, which scientists complain has restricted promising advances in treatment of Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

* Revoke the prohibition on federal funds for overseas family planning efforts that discuss abortion.

* Overturn the 1988 Defense Department ban on military abortions, which applies even if a woman is stationed in a country where abortion is illegal off-base.

Labor's Ideas

Organized labor wholeheartedly backed Mr. Clinton after an initially shaky start. What union advocates would like from Mr. Clinton:

* Cancel two recent Bush executive orders. The first requires federal contractors to post notices telling nonunion workers they don't have to pay union dues that are used for political activities they oppose. The other, signed a week before election, could have the effect of barring union contractors from federally funded construction projects, though its legal implications are still being debated.

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