A Blanket Rule on Rules

Terry H. Schwadron

The House has passed — not for the first time — a bill to tie up executive branch agencies from issuing regulations with substantial effect on the economy without a specific vote of approval from Congress.

It passed 237–187 along party lines. The Senate, which has avoided this bill before, has yet to consider it.

The bill is known as the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act the of 2017, also known as the REINS Act, and it would affect anything from an environmental or consumer protection rule to a food safety regulation. It substitutes any knowledge, science, testing and environmental thinking with raw political power of the House’s most conservative, anti-regulation members.

In other words, it stops the federal government from coming up with new regulations that might limit business in any way.

Apart from all else, it probably runs afoul of Constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers. As The New Yorker magazine noted, “In normal times, such a power grab by Congress would surely face a veto threat from the President, but, of course, these are not normal times.”

The anti-regulation fervor in Washington is ideological, not practical. A Facebook campaign page for REINS explains, “research shows the Obama administration has imposed 600 major regulations with a price tag of $743 billion. All of these new regulations, are on top of existing ones, and the cumulative regulatory cost to the economy adds up over time. These costs get passed on to families in the form of higher prices, stagnant incomes, and lost job opportunities. The REINS Act would require major regulations to come before Congress for an up-or-down vote. This structural change would limit federal agencies’ ability to impose sweeping mandates.”

The very notion that congressmen who cannot agree on the meaning of terms in the health care debate could focus on the technicalities of targeted food safety issues is absurd.

Specifically, the language of the bill requires agencies to identify proposed regulations that would have a $100 million effect on the economy (think oil drilling, bank lending, Big Pharma), amend existing rules to completely offset any annual costs, report to Congress along with cost-benefit information (which will be disputed by affected companies), and require congressional approval for each specific change.

A Huffington Post article about REINS asks us to consider the case of a new toxic chemical standard required by the recently enacted Chemical Safety Act, or a new consumer protection rule about some innovative but untested kind of food additive. Would these Congress members care or learn enough to vote approval within 70 days to allow the regulation to take effect? Clearly not, especially with the advice and counsel of corporate lobbyists fighting the regulations.

Congress didn’t vote for Zika funds in that amount of time. In 2015, there were 43 such major regulations passed to protect the public including food safety regulations, the Clean Power Plan regulating pollution from electrical generating facilities, net neutrality rules protecting the internet from monopoly, restrictions on predatory lending and energy efficiency standards for appliances. Apart from all else, these regulations oversee issues that are complex and require actual technical knowledge, something increasing eschewed in Washington.

It is too easy to just say no, even to rules that have taken months of public debate, multiple negotiations and drafts. The new traditions of gridlock and adherence to the principle that regulations kill jobs say this is a new way of stopping government from governing. It is one of the most pernicious attacks on the citizen protection from a majority Republic Party.

Among REINS’ most vigorous supporters are various lobbying organizations sponsored by the Koch brothers.

It’s not as if Life is getting less complicated or less in need of new regulations. The arrival of robotics and the spread of artificial intelligence to devices of all kind are begging for review. As medicine touches issues of cloning, of intervention of genetic systems, of the possibilities of new drugs, there will be calls for new regulations. Are the same House Republicans who refuse to read the contents of legislation really ready to decide the medical safety of new drugs or to set allowable safety standards for drinking water or whether a new chemical belongs in food packaging?

Clearly a vote for REINS is a vote to rein in any new regulations, period.

Thus, it is easier to repeal Obamacare than to create a new approach to health care (not that this current debate really has been about health), or to throw out Dodd-Frank rules wholesale, or to make workplaces safer. In fact, the House also just passed a bill to allow it to repeal all of President Obama’s regulatory acts in the last eight months of his term in office with a single vote because it would be too time consuming to consider each on its own merits — which is the exact requirement under REINS.

It makes you wonder what we’re doing.

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