Bush rules

Our view : Last-minute regulations aimed at eroding environmental protections and civil liberties spotlight the problem of a lame-duck president with power but no mandate

November 11, 2008

If you think the Bush administration has done all the damage it can to the rules that protect our health, environment and personal rights, think again.

In coming weeks, the lame-duck team is expected to issue last-minute rules that could gut the legal protections of the Endangered Species Act, give the FBI greatly expanded powers to spy on ordinary Americans and limit access to care for women seeking abortions, among dozens of other controversial new interpretations of federal law that are being rushed through required administrative reviews with extraordinary haste.

These new rules will tie the hands of President-elect Barack Obama, and bypass Congress and the public's will. Once they take effect, many can be reversed only after time-consuming new regulatory procedures.

More thoughtful reviews of proposed rules should be required, including those of scientific evidence and more public notice to allow concerned citizens to assess the changes.

More than 90 new regulations are in the works, and at least nine are considered "economically significant" because they would produce costs or benefits larger than $100 million a year. Many are clearly designed to benefit businesses to the detriment of the environment or public safety. One proposal would end the requirement for mandatory public review of decisions that would make it much easier for the Interior Department to remove animals from the endangered species list and relieve the agency of the requirement that it assess the impact of global warming on at-risk species.

Others would allow increases in the emissions of pollutants from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, chemical factories and other industrial plants. Commercial fishermen would be given a larger role in managing fisheries management, a prospective change that has drawn protests from members of Congress as well as 160 conservation groups.

A Department of Labor plan to "simplify" Occupational Safety and Health Administration assessments of on-the-job risks has drawn serious opposition, including a letter from 80 doctors, scientists and public health experts concerned that the rule had "serious flaws" that would risk the safety and health of workers. Pending rules from the Justice Department would give a green light to a new level of domestic spying by allowing state and local law enforcement agencies to gather terrorism-related information and share it with federal officials.

And one day soon, the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue a new rule that could have far-reaching impacts on women and family planning decisions. It would extend the right to refuse to participate in an abortion to include an array of health care workers and add other activities such as providing birth control pills or emergency contraception, even for rape victims.

Mr. Obama's convincing electoral victory and his sharply differing views on the environment and civil liberties spotlight the outrage of such actions by a president who has lost the public's confidence. Congress should act to provide a more timely transfer of presidential power in this fast-paced era and to take other steps to make such administrative chicanery less likely.

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