Last, week, under the cover of a media bliss-out except among Koch funded right-wing channels, the House of Representatives passed a bill which would effectively repeal future standard setting under every important environmental, public health, consumer protection, labor standards, occupational safety and civil rights law on the books.
The bill, called the REINS Act, requires that any future major regulation adopted by an Executive Agency—say 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—must be approved by a specific resolution in each House of Congress within 70 days to take effect.
To give a sense of the scale of this road-block, in 2015 there were 43 such major federal regulations passed to protect the public; among them were 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.
If the REINS Act had been in effect, it unlikely that the Tea Party dominated Republican caucus in the House would have approved of any of these rules. Future standard setting under the entire body of legislation enacted over the past 40 years to protect the public, from the Clean Air Act to the Dodd Frank financial sector reforms, would be frozen. Over time, as new health, safety, consumer and labor protection issues arise, all of these laws will effectively have been repealed, with no public debate and no accountability. It will also be impossible to restore them as long as the REINS Act is in effect, because by requiring Congress to approve every regulation, it makes it impossible to pass technically complex and scientifically valid rules on any topic of controversy.
As one example, the REINS Act would totally neuter the new Chemical Safety Act, just passed by the Republican Congress last year. The act requires U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and set standards for 10 widely abused chemicals in the next six months alone. The act passed only because in exchange, states gave up much of their power to protect their citizens from toxic chemicals; without that incentive, the Tea Party will certainly act to prevent EPA from restricting the use of these chemicals. But the states only agreed to give up in exchange for the promise that EPA would act. But the REINS act neuters this promise. Even if the House Republican caucus was willing in theory to consider such rules, there is simply no way Congress could add 10-40 new pieces of legislation to its work load in the chemical safety area alone. In fact, the House also just passed legislation to allow it to REPEAL all of President Obama's regulatory acts in the last eight months of his term in office with one vote. Why? Because House members said there was not time for individual votes on each rule—exactly the requirement they just established for new rules.
Worse, Congress totally lacks the technical competence to review these kinds of complex rules. Do we really want members of Congress deciding whether a chemical can safely be used in food packaging? Or the proper procedures for approving new drugs as safe and effective? Or setting the allowable safety standard for heavy metals in drinking water?
The vote was 237-187. All Republicans voted for it; only two Democrats, Colin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas, joined them. A Google search five days after the bill passed the House revealed no mention in major media except one Reuters story with limited pick-up and a Washington Post op-ed by one of its major supporters. Even on-line virtually all of the commentary was from the backers of the REINS Act; the only significant alerts of the danger came from the Blue Green Alliance and DeSmogBlog.
Progressives may be counting on the fact that the Senate has previously refused to pass the bill and that it's broad over-reaching will doom it. But these are not ordinary times and past behavior is far from reliable in predicting today's politics.
It's time—past time—for a massive mobilization to make clear to Congress and the new President that a wholesale repeal of 40 years of progress in environmental protection, civil rights, labor standards, health and safety and consumer protection is a third rail, and that pretending that the REINS act increases accountability is a fig-leaf that public scrutiny must shred.
Ask your favorite public interest organization what it is doing today to stop the REINS Act in the Senate.