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GOP Congress puts priority on targeting regulations

Early morning traffic rolls toward the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 14, 2016.
(Photo: J. David Ake, AP)

January 02, 2017

WASHINGTON — Bills to block or roll back federal regulations, initially conceived by Republicans as a check on President Obama’s power, are high on the agenda when the House returns to Washington this week and the changes could become reality shortly after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.

The 115th Congress begins Tuesday with a Republican majority in the House and Senate preparing for the arrival of a Republican president for the first time in eight years.

The House is expected to take up two bills — the Midnight Rules Act and the REINS Act (which stands for Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) — that passed on largely party-line votes in the 114th, 113th and 112th congressional sessions, but died in the Senate. The REINS Act would require that before any new major regulation could take effect, the House and Senate would have to pass a resolution of approval. The Midnight Rules Act would let Congress invalidate rules in bulk that passed in the final year of a presidential term.

The House is also expected to consider a nonbinding resolution disapproving the Dec. 23 United Nations Security Council vote that called on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank. The United States abstained in that vote, allowing the measure to pass.

Regulations are adopted by the executive branch to implement laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. Congress already has the power to repeal laws by passing a new bill and getting the president to sign it. And under the 1996 Congressional Review Act, Congress can pass a resolution of disapproval to block a rule if it acts within 60 days of notification from an agency.

The new legislation would further expand congressional power by preventing an administration from implementing rules without another vote. Under the REINS act, a proposed regulation would be deemed rejected if Congress was in session for 70 days and took no action. The bill allows for a major rule to take effect for a single 90-day period if the president determined it was necessary because of an imminent threat to health or safety or other emergency.

“Our federal agencies are out of control, and Congress is partly to blame for that,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said in a release last week. “We’ve ceded our legislative responsibility to agencies that were never intended to make laws, and the result has been redundant, counterproductive rules that have massive impacts on our economy.”

When the House considered the Midnight Rules Act in November, the White House said it would recommend that Obama veto it. Trump, however, has taken a page from the conservative playbook and blamed government regulations for holding down economic growth and job creation. He has pledged to eliminate two regulations for every new one adopted during his presidency.

The REINS Act and Midnight Rules Act are aimed at major rules. An April 2015 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office said are those that meet one of these conditions: an economic impact of more than $100 million; cause significant price increases for consumers, industries, geographic regions or state or local governments; or have significant adverse effects on competition, employment, investment, productivity or foreign competition.

The CBO said that over the past five years, 82 major rules have been adopted each year, on average. Blocking such regulations in the future would have “a significant effect on direct spending,” but CBO could not predict whether the effect would be positive or negative because it could not say whether Congress would block regulations to increase or decrease spending.

Before the House voted on the final REINS Act in 2015, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to include amendments that would exempt rules that affected veterans health care, nuclear reactor safety, transportation of hazardous materials, and the safety of products used or consumed by children under the age of 2. Each attempt was rejected in a largely party-line vote.

Critics say the changes would endanger the public and worsen gridlock in government.

“Regulations are public protections that are intended to safeguard regular citizens from dealing with unclean air and water, financial crises and unsafe products,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of the CongressWatch program at Public Citizen. “They are intended to protect us, and to do away with them wholesale is an extremely problematic approach.”

Gilbert said that while no one would argue every regulation is perfect, the changes Congress seeks to make would effectively stymie future rulemaking and allow Congress to erase actions the Obama administration took since the summer. She said she hoped there would be enough votes in the Senate to sustain a filibuster on the Midnight Rules bill, but on the REINS Act, “it’s possible there could be a path” for it to pass.