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Business Costs & Regulation

Obama's Regulatory Machine Heats Up

Businesses large and small should brace for more federal regulations—from tougher trade rules to stricter workplace safety audits.

Another slew of regulations is on tap from the Obama administration as Washington’s regulatory apparatus under Democratic leadership cranks into high gear.

In the works: a juiced-up Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Plans to beef up the agency are part of Congress’ efforts to create a new consumer financial protection agency. Legislation OK’d by a key House committee streamlines current rulemaking procedures, which now require that regulators gather extensive information from industries that would be affected. The commission would also get more authority to levy fines and to probe firms doing business with others known to have broken FTC rules.

The prospect of a more powerful FTC has businesses fretting about regulators running amok, particularly since the FTC is already doing more muscle flexing under the Obama regime. And look for the agency to turn up the heat on privacy. This winter, it will host several roundtables to hash over how media companies, advertisers, retailers, Internet ad networks and others collect and use consumer information.

A pending overhaul of food safety laws will get the nod early next year. Food producers will have to develop hazard prevention programs, closely monitoring and controlling contamination risks. Importers will have to verify foreign food safety. The Food and Drug Administration will also get authority to issue mandatory recalls.

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User fees will help pay for the increased government inspections. But the Senate is likely to insist that taxpayers also bear some of the burden.

Another headache for the trucking industry: a ban on texting by drivers, who often rely on it to receive and reply to dispatchers’ messages about changes in routing, pickups and deliveries. Look for the feds to bar such messaging by big-rig drivers before summer as part of a general crackdown on distracted driving. By the end of next year, all motorists will likely face the same restriction.

Truckers will turn to new technology for a solution: voice enabled systems, such as PeopleNet’s Blu system. It communicates messages to truck drivers using a computer generated voice to give drivers revised routing information, including turn-by-turn instructions. If drivers need more details from dispatchers, they must pull over to use the keyboard, which is locked when the truck is in motion.

Within a few years, expect even more technology options to reduce truck driver distractions. A new speech recognition system by IBM will vocalize messages to drivers and let them talk back. It will know when to hush up, too, going silent if drivers make sudden turns or slam on the brakes so as not to distract them in a possible emergency.

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Other fronts where the Obama administration is ratcheting up regulations:

Curbs on air pollution by power plants -- aimed at reducing emissions of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals plus soot. The Environmental Protection Agency will finalize the rules by November 2011, replacing less stringent Bush regulations that were struck down by the courts.

Tighter limits on dust for underground coal mines. Mine safety watchdogs intend to crack down soon on the coal dust, which causes black lung disease.

And stricter audits by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of work related injuries, requiring inspectors, for example, to interview workers to help sniff out underreporting by employers.

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