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Politics

Obama Regulators Ready for Busy Two Years

With Congress facing what could be a long period of gridlock, expect rulemakers to act aggressively before the next presidential election.

Keep your eyes on the regulators, not lawmakers. Rulemakers are poised to be the real agents of change over the next two years of the Obama administration.

It would have happened anyway, but the 2010 elections will give it an added push. We now expect Republicans to take control of the House and come close to parity in the Senate, increasing the chances of legislative deadlock.

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Congress and President Obama won’t agree on much. Both parties will be digging in for the 2012 elections. Compromise, already a rare commodity in Washington, will be virtually nonexistent.

That will give more power to rulewriters, who are ready to use it, in spades. Obama’s lieutenants will move in a host of areas to implement his priorities. Congress can’t stop them, and lobbyists can’t do much, either. Their influence will only be felt on the margins.

Business has a lot riding on the outcome. The cost of all phases of compliance totals 2.6% of gross domestic product today and will likely rise to 2.9% by 2015.

Among the biggest rule changes in the works:

The workplace. New regs are likely on how workers are classified for overtime eligibility plus a crackdown on wage and hour violations. Also, there will be more disclosure to workers on pay calculations as well as more recordkeeping when workers are treated as contractors.

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Safety. A new ergonomic initiative is likely after adoption of a regulation that will require employers to proactively look for and fix health hazards in the workplace.

Union power. Look for the National Labor Relations Board to move soon to sharply reduce union election periods, now that the board is 3-to-1 union oriented. Employers say they need a long campaign period so they can make their case.

Pollution. With Congress deadlocked on climate change, the rulewriters at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are forging ahead. Those industrial plants that are already regulated for nitrogen and sulfur dioxide will face more red tape on carbon dioxide emissions before winning permission to build or upgrade facilities. New regulations on water pollution are also a good bet.

Chemicals. EPA will impose tougher reporting requirements on companies that make, import, process or use potentially hazardous chemicals. Petroleum refiners and manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, paper and electronics will get hit hardest.

Transportation. Truck drivers will be limited to 10 hours a day on the road, down from 11 hours now, a change long pushed by the Teamsters. Plus there will be a national prohibition on trucker texting. Seat belts will likely be mandatory in newly manufactured buses.

Internet services. The Federal Communications Commission will act on its own to make providers treat Web traffic equally instead of letting some of it move more quickly.

And on top of all those: Hundreds of health and financial industry regulations as officials work to implement the two major overhauls enacted this year by Congress.

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