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"Last-Minute" Spinning: Discrediting Clinton's Regulations

By Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
June 11, 2001
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Since President Bush took office, he has repealed several of the regulations President Clinton issued in the waning days of his term. One relatively successful strategy Bush has employed to deflect criticism of his decisions has been to label Clinton's orders as "last-minute." Yet as an article in Saturday's Washington Post by Amy Goldstein makes clear, most of these regulations had been in the research and planning stages for years. Looking back on Bush's decision to block a new standard for arsenic in drinking water illustrates how a careful spin effort, combined with a generally credulous media, helped Bush avoid having to make a reasoned, rational case for repeal.

Beginnings

On his first day in office, Bush blocked the Clinton regulations that had not gone into effect. The reason? As Bush spokesman Scott McClellan put it on January 20, the new administration wanted "the chance to fully and carefully review all these last-minute regulations. It's our responsibility and it's sound public policy." Senator Pete Dominici of New Mexico echoed McClellan the same day, claiming that "The whole myriad of regulations [Clinton] signed while he was walking out the door should be looked at. Clinton had four years of a second term to do some of those, and because he does them all right now makes them all suspect." The press corps bought the line; a typical example was a January 21 piece by Eric Pianin in the Washington Post which explained that "President Bush moved swiftly yesterday to block or rescind scores of executive orders and regulations dealing with the environment, health, food and safety, and workplace conditions that were rushed through in the final weeks of the Clinton administration."

The arsenic rule

On March 20, the Bush administration announced it would not implement a Clinton rule reducing the allowable concentration of arsenic (a chemical linked to cancer) in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb over the next five years. The EPA's web site on the standard makes it clear that the agency had been working on the standard since 1996, when Congress had mandated that the agency pursue a new rule. The complexity of the regulations and the combersome process involved in issuing them (including mandatory periods for public comment and meetings with industries that would be affected) make it extremely difficult to speed them up.

As with other regulations, of course, there is little doubt that the timing of the arsenic rule was designed to make it difficult for Bush to repeal it and to place the new President in a politically awkward situation. Yet the science behind the decision was legitimate. Simply labeling the rule "last-minute" does not reduce the burden of proving it should be jettisoned. And while Bush has paid politically for the action, he has been surprisingly successful at convincing the media and the public that the rule was conceived at the eleventh hour.

The "last-minute" spin

The administration and its allies all spoke to exactly the same points: the rules had been "rushed" or were "last-minute," and the science had not been sufficiently studied:

Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Whitman: According to an April 18 press release from the EPA, "The Administrator took this step because of her concerns that the initial study had been rushed and a more precise scientific review was required."

President Bush, March 29 press conference: "I told people pretty plainly that I was going to review all the last-minute decisions that my predecessor had made, and that is exactly what we're doing. . . . [A]t the very last minute, my predecessor made a decision, and we -- we pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based upon sound science and what's realistic."

Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, speaking broadly at a April 17 White House press briefing in response to a question about the administration's environmental policies: "Many of the regulations that this president is reviewing now were left unaddressed for eight years of the previous administration. They only went into effect in the last, in some cases, 24, 48, 72 hours of the previous administration."

Media coverage: Echoing the spin

Media coverage of the rule was relatively poor, generally following the Bush spin. If reports noted how long the rule had been in the works they did so only deep into the article. Typical was Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote on March 21 that "the Clinton administration issued its ruling in the last days of the administration, along with a flurry of other eleventh-hour rule changes." The article completely fails to mention the history of the regulation. Judy Keen and Traci Watson fared no better in their March 21 USA Today article, merely repeating the Bush line: "Bush aides say some of those measures were intended to ease the energy crisis and give more study to last-minute regulations issued by President Clinton."

Eric Pianin and Cindy Skrzycki of the Washington Post provided a little more detail; they mentioned in the tenth paragraph of their March 21 article that the rules had resulted from "years of study." The best description came from Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, who the only reporter to talk to Chuck Fox, the EPA official in charge of making the rule. Jehl ignored the Bush spin in his March 21 article and instead quotes Fox in the eighth paragraph saying the Bush action "compromises literally a decade's worth of work on behalf of developing a public health standard."

Spin vs. reality

A relatively uncritical press corps bought the line on Clinton's regulations for the same reason the public at large did: some of Clinton's pardon decisions clearly were made at the last minute, and the Bush spin played into a general perception that Clinton's entire administration was disorganized and chaotic. Furthermore, Clinton's actions technically were "last-minute," since he issued the rules with little time left in his term. The Bush administration capitalized on this and exploited the phrase in a way that was technically but trivially true, using it to imply that somehow the decisions on rules had been rushed. In allowing a catch phrase to triumph over fact, the media helped an administration publicly discredit laboriously crafted regulations without making a reasoned case as to why they should be dumped.

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Related posts/columns:
-Brendan Nyhan, Democrats are wrong on arsenic (4/30 post)
-Bryan Keefer, The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (4/30 column)

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