flickr/Jay Mallin

The REINS Act: Handing the reins of public health and safety over to big corporations

By Alison Cassady

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It is well-understood in Washington, D.C. that the early actions of the new Congress communicate what the majority party’s priorities will be in the coming year.

It is telling, then, that in the first legislative days of the new 115th Congress, the House of Representatives is likely to pass the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2017, or REINS Act. With this legislation, Congress is granting itself unprecedented power to cater to big corporations that want to evade safety standards, pollute the environment, and otherwise game the system to their benefit.

REINS empowers corporations, not the public

It’s difficult to overstate the sweeping impact the REINS Act would have on federal watchdogs’ ability to hold big corporations accountable to the public interest. “Regulation” may not be a politically popular word, but these rules help to protect consumers, public health, workers, and the environment. They place limits on corporate greed and weed out bad actors. If enacted, the REINS Act would make it impossible for regulators to do their jobs. No new major rule — defined as one with an economic impact of at least $100 million — could go into effect until both chambers of Congress affirmatively approve it within a 70-day window.

Given partisan gridlock in Congress, this could result in a de facto ban on new public interest safeguards.

Supporters of the REINS Act say that the act will make the rulemaking process more democratic and members of Congress more accountable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the REINS Act subordinates the agency rulemaking process — which is governed by expertise, transparency, and stakeholder outreach — to the whims of a wildly unpopular Congress and the well-heeled lobbyists roaming its halls. Moreover, since the REINS Act deems a regulation disapproved if Congress lets the 70-day window close without action, members of Congress would not even have to cast public votes to nullify critical safeguards.

Two recent examples demonstrate how Congress could use the REINS Act to benefit powerful corporate interests at the expense of clean air and public health.

Carbon pollution limits for power plants

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, finalized the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever carbon pollution limits for the nation’s power plants. In addition to cutting carbon pollution, the Clean Power Plan curbs emissions of other air pollutants that cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death.

This rule was the culmination of years of work. The scientific basis for the rule — that climate change endangers Americans’ health and welfare — is predicated on the overwhelming consensus of scientists around the world. The EPA considered 4.3 million public comments, held 11 public listening sessions, and met extensively with state and tribal governments. The EPA also hosted multiple community and tribal trainings on components of the plan.

The REINS Act would have empowered Congress to summarily dismiss this expert-driven process, and given the electric power sector the last word on whether the public would enjoy cleaner air. That’s because many electric utilities would have called in favors and mobilized their D.C. lobbyists to oppose any new pollution standards. Their network in Congress is extensive: During the 2014 election cycle, electric utilities contributed $21.6 million to congressional campaigns and political parties and spent $121.9 million on lobbying in 2014 and $117.9 million in 2015.

Air pollution standards for oil and gas operations

In 2016, the EPA finalized the first-ever standards for methane pollution from oil and natural gas operations. In addition to cutting methane, a super-charged global warming pollutant, the final rule averts thousands of tons of smog-forming and toxic air pollutants that pose an immediate risk to public health.

The EPA began the rulemaking process by issuing a series of technical white papers in 2014 to solicit input from experts. The agency received 26 sets of peer review comments and 43,000 public comments. After the agency proposed the methane standards, the EPA held teleconferences and webinars with state, tribal, and local leaders; considered more than 900,000 public comments; and held three public hearings.

Under the REINS Act, however, Congress would have had the final say — as would the oil and gas industry, which has opposed limits on methane leaks and holds significant sway on Capitol Hill. During the 2014 congressional election cycle, the oil and gas sector and its employees contributed $65 million. Big oil and gas spent $272 million on lobbyists in 2014 and 2015. ExxonMobil , which ranked second for methane pollution from its oil and gas operations in 2014, gave $2 million in campaign contributions in the 2014 cycle and spent more than any other oil company on lobbying in 2014 and 2015 — a combined $24.6 million.

The current version of the REINS Act likely to pass in the House has one noteworthy difference than versions that passed the House previously: it delays the effective date by one year. One can easily speculate why. President-elect Donald Trump and his industry-friendly Cabinet nominees have promised to attack a range of environmental and public health protections, as well as other important safeguards. Any EPA action to weaken clean air protections or block action on climate change, for example, likely would trigger mandatory congressional review under the REINS Act. Congress simply may not want to go on record voting for Trump’s agenda and against these popular programs.

President-elect Trump arrived in DC promising to “drain the swamp” and reduce the influence of corporate lobbyists. The REINS Act offers nothing less than a corporate takeover of the means to protect public health, the environment, workers, and consumers.

Alison Cassady (@ALCassady)is the Director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.