Promoted from the diaries by susanbhu.

I cover environmental issues for Rolling Stone magazine. The article I wrote about the Bush administration’s plan to create a Sunset Commission, with the power to terminate any and all government agencies, started life as a strictly environmental piece [“Bush’s Most Radical Plan Yet,” Rolling Stone, 5 May 2005, issue 973].

The original idea was to examine how the president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 would effect the environment. There was plenty to write about and it was fairly straightforward.

But after interviewing scientists, politicians, environmentalists and, most important, policy analysts at the non-profit OMB Watch, my editor, Eric Bates, and I realized there was an even larger story. (I owe Adam Hughes and Rob Shull at OMB Watch big-time for pointing the way. As far as I know, they really broke this story first on the OMB Watch website.)

SusanHu did a great job in her diary, whittling down my RS article to essentials, while at the same time adding her own insights and more information (gleaned, I’m happy to say, from OMB Watch). After reading the dozens of comments to her diary, I wanted to respond to some.

So, here we go (below the fold):

COMMENT #1 by Susanhu:

The first group that publicly mentioned the Sunset provision is Mercatus Center (link goes to “The Mercatus Center has engaged in campaigns involving deregulation, especially environmental deregulation.”

They’re all on board, aren’t they. What will we do about it?
Susan in Port Angeles

RESPONSE #1 to Susanhu from Osha Gray Davidson:

            In one draft of the piece, I concentrated on the links between the Bush administration and groups like Mercatus. My editor thought (rightly) that it read too much like a conspiracy theory and we removed that section. Still, there was good information in there, and, at the risk of sounding paranoid, or causing paranoia in others, here is an edited (and unpolished) version of the deleted section:


            Grover Norquist is the best known and most powerful leader of the far-right groups that support the Sunset Commission. Norquist cut his political teeth in the Reagan White House, and later sharpened them working with Newt Gingrich writing the “Contract With America.” While Clay Johnson attempts to minimize the sunsetting element of the sunset commission, Norquist gleefully proclaims his reactionary intentions. “I don’t want to abolish government,” he told an interviewer in 2001. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, which depends on corporate donations for a large chunk of its funding – mostly from industries like tobacco and alcohol that would profit handsomely from a rollback or elimination of taxes.

            Tax reform is just one of Norquist’s goals. He is currently rallying his many troops to support President Bush’s efforts to partly privatize Social Security, which Norquist sees as a good first step toward total privatization, and, ultimately, to the end of “the Welfare State.” To Norquist, the sunset commission is another potentially promising route to the same goal. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper “El Mundo” last September, Norquist explained that when the government is on its way out of the pension business (Social Security) and health care (Medicare and Medicaid), he plans to work to “reform” the EPA. (“Reform” is the preferred conservative euphemism for “cut” or “abolish.”)

            When I asked him recently which programs at the EPA he would eliminate, Norquist demurred. “Hell, I’m not an expert in the field,” he said.

            Norquist does, however, have a friend inside the Bush Administration who deals with the EPA on a nearly daily basis: John Graham, whom Bush appointed administrator of the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Graham has been called Bush’s “Regulatory Czar” because of the power he wields to stop regulations in their tracks if he believes their costs outweigh their benefits. It’s a power his critics say he misuses to favor industry. “He seems to think his job is to snuff regulations in the cradle,” says Rena Steinzor, a scholar in regulatory law at the University of Maryland. Steinzor is also a member of the Center for Progressive Regulation, a “virtual Think Tank,” and co-editor of the book A New Progressive Agenda for Public Health and the Environment.

In 1995, Graham was part of the team, with Grover Norquist, that wrote the Contract With America. At the time, he was running the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which was largely funded by industry, and was accused of producing the results funders wanted.

            In 1996, the future “Regulatory Czar” told the audience at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, “I don’t think there’s any more passionate advocate of regulatory reform than myself.” Graham next outlined an incremental strategy for rolling back safety and health protections without attracting attention. Gingrich had over-reached with the anti-regulatory sections of the Contract with America and the package had blown up in his face, forcing him to step down as Speaker of the House, and making environmental, health and safety protections off limits to reformers. Graham counseled a slow, steady and highly disciplined campaign. “We build our own morale as a movement to work for larger and more ambitious regulatory reforms at a later time,” he said. Graham also cautioned against speaking too plainly about their goals in public, citing a meeting he had recently attended at which Vice-President Al Gore and EPA Administrator Carole Browner “named Congressmen in this town who had said they wanted to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Maybe we’re going to get to that some day, but I don’t think that’s a helpful way to talk about these issues.”


[Maybe this has been reported elsewhere, but I hadn’t seen it until I was searching through the Heritage Foundation’s Website. John Graham, the Bush administration’s top person on federal regulations, discussing the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, and saying “Maybe we’re going to get to that some day. . . .”]

If you want to know more about Graham’s views on regulations, read Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing by Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling. I reviewed the book for Onearth, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council.


And here’s more about the Mercatus Center from the deleted (and rambling) section:


[After Enron collapsed] the Mercatus Center had found deeper pockets in Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, which has donated millions to the center over the years. Koch Industries is known for two things. Its foundation is one of the largest donors to conservative and libertarian causes fighting “burdensome regulations.” And in January 2000, the oil and gas empire was hit with a $30 million fine – at the time, the largest civil penalty ever imposed against a company for violating federal environmental statutes. Through negligence, Koch had caused more than 300 oil spills in six states over a period of several years.

            In addition to donating money to the Mercatus Center, two top Koch executives sit on the Center’s seven person board. The Koch Foundation has also made donations to the Harvard Center for Risk Assessment, founded and run by John Graham until he took Wendy Gramm’s old job at OMB. Before going to OMB, Graham also served on the Mercatus Center’s advisory board. Meanwhile Grover Norquist supports the Center’s anti-regulatory work by celebrating their work through press releases from Americans for Tax Reform.

            These incestuous links aren’t merely suspect. The nonprofit Clean Air Trust pointed out in 2002 that “the OMB office [headed by John Graham] is becoming a conduit for regulatory bashers such as Mercatus.”

            . . . . At the economic conference where the Mercatus Center’s Susan Dudley trotted out the new sunset idea, Treasury Secretary John Snow called regulations “hidden taxes,” a charge leveled frequently by those wanting to cut government protections.

            Secretary Snow has been fighting the battle against big government for years. Before President Bush appointed him to head up Treasury in December 2002, Snow had been the CEO of the railroad giant CSX for twelve years. His tenure at CSX was a disaster, marked by a crumbling infrastructure that resulted in more safety violations and more accidents. According to the Washington Post, the man who replaced Snow as CEO admitted that “CSX for years limited capital spending in part to make its finances look better.” From the time Snow took control of CSX in 1991 until 1998, the railroad spent less per mile of track than any other major railroad in the country, found the Post. Investors were happy as profits soared, thanks to Snow’s corner-cutting. And significant portion of the funds that should have gone for new rails and ties and for hiring enough maintenance workers to inspect and repair the track, instead went into Snow’s pocket. In 2001, he was paid $10 million, not including a golden parachute several times that amount. The Federal Railroad Administration issued a damning indictment of CSX in a 2000 audit of track conditions. They found CSX employees falsifying safety records, maintenance crews stretched so thin they were only able to “put out fires,” and mile after mile of barely functioning tracks. An FRA inspector checked the condition of 475 consecutive ties on a curve approaching a bridge in Virginia. He reported that 196 of the ties, forty-one percent, were dangerously defective. The track, the inspector noted, was used by Amtrak passenger trains. Local company officials indicated that no work was scheduled for the track that year. The FRA was so concerned about conditions that it took the unprecedented step of putting CSX on probation for the next two years. A CSX website profiling Snow when he was CEO, boasted that Snow was “an effective industry spokesman for the continuing benefits of railroad deregulation.” Also mentioned was Snow’s successful effort to deregulate the rail, truck and aviation industries, as Deputy Undersecretary of Transportation in the Ford Administration.


[End of deleted section, and back to comments to SusanHu’s diary]

COMMENT #2 by Enoch:

Sunset provisions are a staple of state government

Nearly all state agencies in many states have 10 year sunset provisions. At the end of the ten years, the state legislature has to renew the agency. Here in Arizona, all agencies are renewed despite some hemming and hawing by conservatives.

            by Enoch on Sat Apr 23rd, 2005 at 18:43:21 PDT

RESPONSE #2 to Enoch from Osha Gray Davidson:

The success of sunset laws in the “laboratories of Democracy” has been overstated by proponents of a federal version. The only thing I found that was close to a true study of state sunset laws was a joint effort by The National Legislative Program Evaluation Society and the National Association of State Legislatures. It was presented in August 2001 at the NCSL’s annual meeting.  Forty-five states responded to a survey about sunset provisions. Of those 45: 13 never had any sunset provision, 16 states had once had a sunset provision but had since dropped it, and 16 states reported that they still had a sunset provision of some kind. As many states have ended their sunset laws as have kept them, and nearly as many never adopted them in the first place.

            BTW, I asked Clay Johnson if OMB had studied the success/failure of state commissions. He said (from my interview notes): “No, because they operate differently in each state. There’s nothing magical about a sunset commission. It’s all about the spirit in which they’re launched and the spirit in which the commission is formed. They have to be created with the best intentions in mind.” (Here’s an interesting Web-chat with Johnson.)

COMMENT #3, by WI Deadhead:

Sounds like a public process

            The difference here is they are hoping to get this done by an appointed commission with no exposure to the voting public. And once it is disbanded, good luck getting anything with real teeth ever put in place again.

WI Deadhead on Sat Apr 23rd, 2005 at 19:04:08 PDT

RESPONSE #3 to WI Deadhead from Osha Gray Davidson:

            WI Deadhead raises two important issues I heard from several experts while researching the article. Not only is the administration’s sunset commission very different from the one that’s seemed to work well in Texas, but the political landscape has changed dramatically from when the TX sunset provision was created (1977). Cyrus Reed, of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, told me he thought the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission was a good thing, overall. But he added that, “The Republican party controls all of the committees now. Who’s in charge makes all the difference. If it were being done here today, I’d be concerned that it’s another vehicle for deregulation.”

            And several more people talked about the fact that it takes decades to build a consensus to create a major government program (more on that term of art – program – in a moment). As Deadhead says, once a program is gone, it’s probably gone for a generation – if not forever.

COMMENT #4 by RHunter:

Government Programs?

            I’m really wondering what they define “government programs” as…

by RHunter on Sun Apr 24th, 2005 at 07:23:32 PDT

RESPONSE #4 to RHunter from Osha Gray Davidson:

I started off thinking it meant, well, programs, you know? I mean, we all know what a program is, right? Something like: A program is a specific and self-contained government activity carried out by an agency or department. That’s what I had thought, anyway. It was like pulling teeth to get OMB to answer that question. But the answer, in the end, was that in the context of sunsetting, “programs” means not just the activities of agencies or departments, but the agencies and departments themselves. I asked for clarification: “The Department of Defense won’t really be forced to go before the commission every decade and justify its existence will it?” The OMB official sort of danced around that, but, in the end, the answer was “yes.”

COMMENT #5 by ChristianDem in NC:

I wonder if there are bill numbers out on this

Wanted to find out how far along this has gone in the House and Senate.

by Christian Dem in NC on Sun Apr 24th, 2005 at 09:23:23 PDT

RESPONSE #5 to Christian Dem in NC from Osha Gray Davidson:

            The administration hasn’t made any bill public at this point. The fact that the president says in the budget proposal that he intends to call for a sunset commission has no legal implications (according to my lawyer/wife and constitutional law scholars I interviewed). It’s kind of a shot across the bow. But there are bills before the House and Senate. TX Congressman Kevin Brady (he’s quoted in the RS article) introduced HR 2939 in 1997 with 81 co-sponsors. He introduced another bill in 2003. OMB Watch has a link to his bill, and more information. There’s also a link there to a Senate version, introduced by Sam Brownback (R-KS).

To keep up-to-date on the Sunset Commission, check OMB Watch periodically – and/or subscribe to their newsletters. A recent panel presentation about the Sunset Commission held at the Heritage Foundation is worth viewing. The speakers are Clay Johnson, Sam Brownback and Kevin Brady.

We all owe a big thanks to Osha Davidson for providing us with this superb analysis and far more information with which we can keep watch, and act, on the Sunset provisions.

Susan’s note: Buy the May 2005 issue of Rolling Stone! And visit Osha’s site — he’s written a number of books as well as articles.

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