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January 06, 2017

House Republicans Launch Early Strike on Executive Regulations

By Abby Harvey

After just one week in session, the Republicans of the 115th Congress have made clear their intentions to come down hard on executive branch regulation. Three bills introduced this week, the Regulatory Accountability Act, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, and the Midnight Rules Relief Act, aim to limit the power of the executive branch to regulate just about anything.

Together, the bills “would make it open to question whether there would be any way for regulations to move forward. It would change longstanding principals under which regulations are reviewed and … the breadth of the attack looking across these bills is really extraordinary,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told GHG Weekly on Thursday. “You’re really talking about preventing the government from undertaking any new safeguards for the public for the foreseeable future, and that’s in no way an exaggeration.”

Republicans have been particularly unhappy with the current administration’s energy and environment regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, for example, regulates carbon from coal-fired power plants and was written under the Clean Air Act. Republicans have argued that the CAA was never intended to regulate carbon, and that the new rule is too costly and places an unbearable burden on the coal industry.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to roll back the Clean Power Plan. If these bills pass it would also be nearly impossible to place any future regulations on carbon emissions.

Only one of the bills, the Midnight Rules Relief Act, would apply to existing regulations. The rule focuses on regulations passed during the final months of any outgoing administration. Under the bill, Congress could disapprove en bloc of any number of such “midnight regulations” passed by the former administration through the Congressional Review Act.

Speaking on the lower-chamber floor Tuesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) specifically noted the Obama administration’s midnight regulations. “The Obama administration has imposed more runaway regulation than any other in memory, and its midnight rulemaking period is no exception.  When the House considered this legislation in the wake of last November’s election, the Administration had issued or planned to issue at least 180 midnight rules within the scope of this bill, including multiple billion-dollar rules and more than 20 major rules imposing $100 million or more in costs per year,” he said.

Regulations that could be targeted under the bill include limits on methane emissions.

The House approved the Midnight Rules Relief Act on Tuesday in a 238-184 vote.

The other two bills would apply to new or modified regulations. The REINS Act is of particular concern, Goldston said. Under the bill any regulation that would impose compliance costs of more than $100 million a year would have to be approved by Congress. If the rule did not get congressional approval within 70 days it would be null and void. Such approval is not currently required.

The current system has for more than a century worked by having Congress delegate authority and have expert agencies develop rules, Goldston explained. “Agencies often take several years to formulate a particular safeguard, reviewing hundreds of scientific studies, empanelling expert advisors, gathering thousands of public comments, and going through many levels of executive branch review. Under the REINS Act, Congress, with its limited and largely inexperienced staff, and its broad and unfocused agenda, would have 70 days to second-guess each and every decision covered by the Act,” Goldston wrote in a blog post this week.

The REINS Act passed in the House Wednesday by a vote of 237-187.

The remaining bill, the Regulatory Accountability Act, is “basically a cornucopia of bad ideas,” according to Goldston. The legislation incorporates a number of older bills into one giant package that would, among other things, halt the implementation of a regulation until it has undergone full judicial review, eliminate the deference traditionally shown to agencies, and require a cost-benefit analysis for rules that apply to public health that under the current system are judged solely on their public health impact. “It doesn’t go as far as REINS, because nothing goes as far as REINS, but it would … basically amend bedrock statutes, environmental and otherwise,” Goldston said.

While two of the bills have made it through the House, Goldston doesn’t foresee them actually making it to Trump’s desk. “We think it’s remote in anything like their current forms,” he said. “I think for REINS it’s remote, period, because of pretty broad opposition among Senate Democrats.”

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