The nanny state

January 31, 1995|By Mona Charen

DOES REPUBLICAN control of Congress translate into Republican control of government? The question does not have a simple answer. The Republicans are like apprentice lion tamers at the circus who've suddenly been handed a whip and a chair. They've got the power, but the outcome depends on whether they know how to use it.

The regulatory hydra that is the federal government will, left to its own devices, churn out some 4,300 new regulations in the next two years. Those regulations will be added to the 64,914 pages of single-spaced, small-print regulations that already crowd the almanac of government excess called the Federal Register. It is impossible to measure the cost of this thicket of rules to the economy, but the Clinton administration itself estimates that regulations cost the private sector at least $430 billion per year.

Proponents of the nanny state, a.k.a. Democrats, argue that every penny of that expense is worthwhile because it protects our children from harm, keeps our airplanes from falling out of the sky and poisons out of our food.

Tell that to the company that was fined $5,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency because an employee inadvertently wrote a name on line 18 rather than line 17 of an EPA form. Try to persuade the owner of a small dry-cleaning shop, who was fined for failing to post a notice listing the number of employee injuries during the preceding 12 months -- though there had been no injuries during that period.

What the tribunes of intrusive government are blind to is that overweening regulation can have exactly the opposite effect from the one they intend. The Food and Drug Administration is Exhibit A. Have you heard of the Sensor Pad? It's a simple, $7 product that physicians and women around the world swear by. It is two sheets of sealed plastic with silicon lubricant between them. Placed over a woman's breast, it dramatically enhances the sensitivity of the fingertips to lumps. In Canada, Japan, Korea, Thailand and most of Western Europe, women and their doctors are using the device to help detect breast tumors. But in the United States, where it was invented, the FDA has withheld )) clearance for its sale since 1985 -- nearly bankrupting the inventor in the process. "Their intention is very worthy," Susan Alpert, director of the FDA's office of Device Evaluation, told the Wall Street Journal. "But the issue for the agency is of ensuring that we don't allow to market any device that poses significant risk without an attendant benefit."

But what, exactly, is the risk? If the answer is cancer, the question ought to be, how can a woman be worse off by using this device, which will, of course, miss some cancers, than she would have been without it? The cancer may also presumably be missed by using fingers alone to do self-examination. And there is nothing about marketing the device that would prevent women from also using a soap and water method, mammography or any other technique to detect tumors. The FDA assumes that people are idiots, unable to place a device in context and use it in concert with other things. What the agency ought to answer for is this: How many women's lives might have been saved if the device had been available for the past nine years?

Two weeks ago, a House subcommittee held hearings on a bill that would establish a six-month moratorium on new regulations (excluding those that, among other things, concern imminent threats to health and safety, streamline other regulations or implement treaties). Republicans argue that such a pause would give Congress some breathing room to examine the proposed new regulations. Democrats have responded with as much scare talk as they can muster, particularly about pending regulations of children's toys.

The Federal Register already contains pages and pages of regulations governing small parts, sharp points, labeling, rattles, pacifiers, toxic substances, irritants, sensitizers, radioactive matter, any defects that cause a risk of injury and any defects that cause a hazard. The sky will not fall if we wait six months for one more.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.


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