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THE WILD assault on governmental regulations by the House of Representatives has been sensibly muted in the Senate. The Senate version could turn out to be a useful check on Washington agencies -- without destroying their mission.

Government regulations are an intrinsically boring subject not fit for dinner parties, but they are important nonetheless. People who like to breathe clean air, drive safe cars and eat pure food should care about them.

The new House -- impetuous to an extreme -- last month slapped a year-long moratorium on new regulations except those involving "imminent" threats. The bill also suspended regulations issued by government agencies after Nov. 20.

The House let "regs" involving hunting, fishing and camping escape the moratorium, but not such things as tighter rules for meat inspection.

An exception in the other direction was the Endangered Species Act, which was hit with a two-year moratorium. Animals, including those facing extinction, don't vote.

The more deliberative Senate responded with a bill -- passed 100 to 0 -- that would give the Congress 45 days to turn back any regulation it didn't like that had an economic cost of $100 million or more. That could
be as many as 800 every year. As it stands, Congress has no say once it passes the broad language of the law upon which the regulations are based.

The president would retain veto power over the congressional action, meaning it would take a two-thirds majority in each house to reject a regulation the president wants to keep.

Far from being a scatter-gun moratorium killing all before it, the Senate version could helpfully chop down selected instances where regulators have strayed too far from the law's intent or put forth an absurdity. That can happen.

Some critics are worried that big money could wield too much influence in the rule-making process if Congress has power to defeat regulations. But they seem to forget the rules are based on laws that Congress passed in the first place, usually with big-money lobbying to influence the outcome.

The rule-making issue is far from dead. The House and Senate are taking two very different routes that will be hard to reconcile.

The Senate approach is better because it allows a case-by-case review under time limits. The House moratorium, on the other hand, is reckless and beyond reason.

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