WASHINGTON — Business groups are bracing for a wave of new regulation next year, no matter who wins the White House. And some lobbyists already are pushing back by warning that too much regulation would worsen an ailing economy.
"The pendulum never stops in the middle," said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Others, such as groups representing financial services, are seeking to use regulatory overhauls to advance their own priorities. Some industry groups are even replacing Republican lobbyists with Democrats, in anticipation of a larger Democratic majority in Congress, if not a victory for Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama and congressional Democrats are proposing "an enormity of costly new government programs" that would burden the economy and small business, Josten said.
The financial meltdown, coupled with concerns about climate change, food safety and other issues, has built momentum to reverse a three-decade trend of deregulation. Analysts expect a wide-ranging effort to tighten government oversight of many parts of the economy.
Obama blames the meltdown on "the failed economic policies of the past eight years," including deregulation of the financial industry. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has also criticized Wall Street and corporate excesses and, if elected, would likely face a Congress with more Democratic members determined to push for closer oversight.
"The overall atmosphere in this town has changed," said Robert Litan, a regulatory expert at the Brookings Institution. "There's more sympathy for regulation than there was before and more distrust of large private-sector organizations."
Another factor driving new rules will be the tight budgets the next president and Congress will face. The Bush administration has forecast that the deficit for the budget year that began Oct. 1 will reach a record $482 billion. The financial bailout approved Oct. 3 could raise that to record levels of $700 billion or more.
As a result, the next president will likely focus on regulation and other steps that don't "require new legislation or spending," said Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.
Here is how several industries are responding to the era of tighter regulation they expect:
Banks and the financial sector
If there's one industry with a bull's eye on its back, it's financial services. Leading Democratic lawmakers have made clear that Congress will push for tougher oversight next year.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said last week that the House and Senate might form a special joint committee to draft the most sweeping changes to the financial regulatory system since the 1930s.
Democrats have yet to disclose details of the changes they will push. But unregulated corners of the industry, such as hedge funds and derivatives, could be subject to federal regulation for the first time. So could insurance companies, which are now regulated at the state level.
Industry lobbyists are seeking to use the overhaul to streamline what they see as overlapping regulators that operate on outdated distinctions among commercial banks, thrifts and investment banks.
Trade groups such as the Financial Services Roundtable argue that since many of those companies provide similar services, regulators such as the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Treasury Department's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency should be combined.
The Roundtable represents 100 of the largest banks and insurance companies, including Bank of America Corp., Allstate Corp. and Wells Fargo Co.
Mortgage lending practices, now overseen at the state level, may also be subject to more federal oversight. Obama backs a measure pushed by consumer groups — and opposed by the financial industry — that would let judges in bankruptcy courts adjust individual mortgages to help reduce foreclosures.
Many Republicans and the mortgage industry argue that the move would increase mortgage rates, prolonging the housing slump.
Insurance companies such as Unitedhealth Group Inc. and Humana Inc. are preparing to fight spending cuts in the Medicare program and are also likely to oppose possible new mandates, such as Obama's proposal that insurers cover pre-existing conditions.
In addition, Josten said chamber representatives already have met with staff for Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democratic chairman of the Senate's lead committee on health care, to push the business group's priorities. Those priorities include more focus on preventive care and on lowering costs than on increasing coverage.
Separately, the drug industry's lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers' Association, recently promoted a former Democratic Hill staffer, Bryant Hall, to replace its top lobbyist, Alan Gilbert, who previously worked in the Bush White House.
PhRMA spokesman Ken Johnson said Gilbert is retiring from the association to start his own consulting group.
"We're not reshuffling the deck but we are constantly reaching out to people on both sides of the aisle who have a stake in the health care debate," Johnson said.
Energy and environment
Both Obama and McCain have pledged to take steps to combat global warming by curbing greenhouse gases emissions. They both support cap-and-trade programs. These programs are intended to allow companies_ power plants, refiners and others — that can't cut their emissions because of cost or technical hurdles to buy credits from cleaner businesses.
Under Obama's plan, companies would have to pay for the initial permits; McCain would give them away. Either plan would cut into the profits of oil and gas companies, coal producers and utilities, among others.
Josten, the Chamber of Commerce's chief lobbyist, said his group opposes the cap-and-trade proposals in Congress, which he said impose costly and unnecessary mandates on companies.
Kevin Book, an energy analyst at FBR Capital Markets, said a cap-and-trade program won't necessarily burden coal or utility companies. Congress's main goal will be to use the program to raise revenue, he said.
"It's going to be fund-raising, not behavior-changing," Book said.
Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may also include cars, and the ailing auto industry is watching an effort by California to obtain a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency so it can restrict carbon dioxide emissions.
In December 2007, the EPA denied California's request that it be allowed to impose rules requiring new cars to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. At least 16 states have indicated interest in imposing similar rules.
The auto industry has opposed the California rule because it wants a single national standard.
Both McCain and Obama have backed the waiver request. Auto industry officials and their supporters in Congress are expected to seek a delay to the waiver.
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