Center for Progressive Reform

Congressional Attacks on Regulation

Holding Congress Accountable

Americans don’t want their children to have to breathe dirty air or drink poisoned water. They don’t want to work at unsafe jobs. They want the cars, food, and other products they buy to be safe, and the medicines they are prescribed to be effective. The nation’s laws are written with that in mind, but the translation from statute to reality depends on vigorous regulation and fair and muscular enforcement.

That formula has succeeded over the years, putting teeth into a consumer and environmental revolution that has made air, water, cars, consumer products, food, and drugs safer — so much so that politicians dare not take on the laws that made the transformation possible for fear of enraging their constituents. But eager to please large corporate interests, politicians and lobbyists have found a way to weaken vital safeguards without attracting too much attention.

Rather than attack popular laws directly, they accomplish the same ends by assaulting the system by which policy experts turn those vital laws into enforceable rules of the road. The indirect nature of these attacks helps to cover their tracks, obscuring the damage they are doing to our public health, safety, financial security, and environment. What’s more, corporate special interests and their allies in Congress have successfully contrived a false narrative about the U.S. regulatory system’s supposed negative impact on the economy – a narrative built on a foundation of myths, propaganda, and misleading data.  

Congress Takes Aim at Obama Safeguards

Even before Donald Trump took office, the congressional GOP had drawn up a "hit list" of health, safety, and environmental regulations it hoped to erase from the books. Their method: the long-dormant Congressional Review Act, part of the 1996 "Contract with America," which makes it easy for Congress to block recently issued rules by means of a “joint resolution of disapproval,” subject to veto by the president. The point of the CRA is to grease the skids for the passage of these joint resolutions by temporarily suspending key aspects of the congressional deliberative process, including committee hearings, floor debates, conference committees involving members of the Senate and the House, and, most notably, the standard 60-vote threshold in the Senate. Once a joint resolution has been enacted, the CRA further prohibits the agency from issuing another rule in “substantially the same form” unless it receives explicit congressional authorization to do so. CPR tracked GOP leaders' use of the CRA to undo a host of safeguards, which made it easier for people with mental health problems to buy guns, repealed rules that stopped coal companies from dumping the waste from “mountaintop removal” mining into nearby streams, stripped Americans of privacy protections on the internet, and more. Read CPR's paper, The Congressional Review Act: The Case for Repeal, take a look at our chart of all such repeal efforts, read about CRA By the Numbers

Anti-Safety Legislation: Weakening Safeguards in Law

In Congress in recent years, opponents of regulatory safeguards have offered a variety of legislative proposals aimed at cutting the legs out from under our protector agencies, essentially seeking to weaken landmark laws protecting our health, safety, and environment.

Two of the most regressive bills have moved well down the track. The “Regulatory Accountability Act,” is a radical bill that would drastically overhaul the Administrative Procedure Act – the foundational law governing the rulemaking process – to enhance corporate special interests’ ability to block or weaken rules they oppose. Among other things, the bill would dozens of new requirements to the process, all of which would slow down the already plodding rulemaking process even more, waste scarce agency resources, and force agencies to privilege concerns for industry profits ahead of the public interest when designing regulations. Other provisions of the bill would invite greater politicized attacks on science, and encourage greater judicial second-guessing of the policy choices made by agency experts after years of public outreach and careful study.

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would prevent new health, safety, environmental and other regulations from going into effect unless both houses of Congress vote within 70 days of promulgation to approve them, by means of a joint congressional resolution. Congress can already vote to block regulations, but the proposed approach — with inaction serving as disapproval — would stack the deck against much-needed regulations by harnessing the power of congressional dysfunction and delay in service of an anti-regulatory agenda and allowing a single house of Congress to block enforcement of federal law simply by failing to vote. 

To get beyond the legislation-by-focus-grouped-bill-naming approach that has become the stock-in-trade of the anti-safeguards push, CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin has prepared a series a bill analyses, each covering individual legislative proposals offered in the name of regulatory "reform." They include:

Attacks by Budget

Over the years, Congress and some presidential administrations have bled protector agencies’ budgets, denying them the resources they need to enforce the nation’s health, safety, and environmental laws. Without cops on the beat, enforcement has been spotty. That, of course, is the aim of the anti-safeguards contingent.

President Trump and his allies in Congress may differ over the precise extent to which they intend to defund the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, but they agree on the fundamental proposition that they’d prefer feeble enforcement of the nation’s health, safety, and environmental laws, and toward that end are eager to starve the agencies charged — by congressional action, ironically enough — with enforcing them.

Moreover, anti-safeguards lawmakers seek to starve agencies of resources while simultaneously imposing new analytic requirements, thus achieving a multiplier effect — piling on unnecessary work while at the same time cutting back on funding. That will make it all the harder for agencies to enforce existing safeguards, much less update old ones or address emerging risks.

Finally, when such anti-safeguard measures cascade to the inevitable outcome — a major disaster that could have been prevented by vigorous safeguards and rigorous enforcement — conservatives will, as they have in the past, use a preventable disaster as a talking point to make the case that the protector agencies have failed and should have their budgets cut further.

Read more about CPR’s work to defend against the legislative assault on our safeguards:


The Center for Progressive Reform

2021 L St NW, #101-330
Washington, DC. 20036

© Center for Progressive Reform, 2019