The House is expected to vote this week on the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny, or REINS, Act. In a landmark year for misguided, misinformed, and harmful legislation, REINS is a standout. It would require Congress to approve, via a joint resolution, any “economically significant” regulation (otherwise known as a major rule) issued by a federal agency—within 90 days.
REINS would turn a regulatory process currently driven by scientific expertise, industry input, and careful cost-benefit analysis into a political circus. While agencies are not immune from political influence, they must have legal justifications for the rules they promulgate, and those justifications must stand up in a court of law when challenged. But under REINS, either chamber of Congress—or even a single senator—could effectively overturn a law by refusing to approve critical rules of implementation for entirely political reasons.
Here’s what you need to know.
The REINS Act threatens our system of checks and balances
The REINS Act would undermine the system of checks and balances essential to our shared democracy. Under REINS not only would a law need to first pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law by the president, but any major rules designed to implement that law would need to be approved by both chambers as well. That means that one chamber could effectively overturn a law by refusing to grant approval to essential rules of implementation. In this way, the REINS Act constitutes a radical and unprecedented move away from democratic governance.
Even more disturbing than the possibility that either the House or the Senate could unilaterally gut an existing law is the possibility that a single senator could do so. The REINS Act does not explicitly and clearly prohibit a filibuster in the Senate. So a conservative senator could single-handedly block a “major rule” that aims to limit harmful air emissions. Or a liberal senator with strong gun-control views could filibuster one of the several “major rules” issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service each year to govern the migratory bird-hunting season.
It seems unthinkable. But it’s possible under REINS.
Congress doesn’t have the expertise to evaluate the implementation of every bill it passes
Writing regulations requires detailed technical, economic, and legal knowledge. Whether a regulation is enacted or not shouldn’t be contingent on the opinions of 535 elected officials who lack expertise in the relevant scientific, technological, and economic matters. Major rules are frequently revised based on input from lengthy public comment periods and often-contentious lawsuits. And, while Congress boasts 24 members with medical degrees, an astronaut, an NFL quarterback, and a tugboat captain, there aren’t very many scientists (three), engineers (six), or economists (zero) currently serving terms in the nation’s legislature.
Congress doesn’t have the time to evaluate the implementation of every bill it passes
There are thousands of bills and resolutions introduced each year in Congress, and the House and Senate take hundreds of recorded votes. According to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, there were about 100 “major” regulations finalized in 2010. The REINS Act ostensibly limits debate to 10 hours for each joint resolution of approval. That would add up to an extra 1000 hours of debate each year. Even if Congress were in session for all 52 weeks of the year—and they are not—an extra 1000 hours would tack nearly 20 hours of floor time onto each week. That’s not just impractical, it’s impossible.
The REINS Act confuses economic costs with economic effects
A “major” or “economically significant” regulation is one that has an estimated annual economic effect of $100 million or more. Economic effects are not limited to the costs of implementing something: they can be the result of net benefits, or the transfer of funds from the government to citizens, or an expected increase in consumer spending. A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examines all of the 100 “major rules” finalized in 2010. In their analysis, some federal agriculture subsidies were categorized as “major rules.” So were Medicare and Medicaid payments, fees for passports, and the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund. All of these rules would require a round of Congressional approval under REINS.
Finally, Congress already has the power to oversee and overturn regulations
Judging by the rhetoric of REINS supporters, you’d think Congress has its hands tied when it comes to regulatory oversight. That’s far from true. The Congressional Review Act of 1996 has allowed Congress to review new federal regulations and pass joint resolutions to overrule them. Several such resolutions have passed either chamber of Congress, and, in 2001, both chambers voted to overturn ergonomics standards issued by Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Hard as it may be to recall, regulations do more than set conservatives off wailing “job-killer!” around the echo chamber. Your car has seatbelts because of government regulation. Your peanut butter is safe to eat because of government regulation. More rivers and lakes are clean, more children are asthma-free, and prescription medications must be proven safe and effective before being given to patients because of regulation. This week’s vote and the months-long conservative onslaught against cost-effective consumer protections is nothing more than political theater. And it’s long past time for the curtain to come down on this particular revue.
Kristina Costa is a Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress.