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Here's How Republicans Plan to Kill Net Neutrality, Climate, and Labor Rules

A series of bills making their way through Congress would give Republicans veto power over regulations passed by agencies like the FCC and EPA.

by Sam Gustin
Jan 27 2017, 9:16pm

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Republicans in Congress are wasting no time laying the groundwork for a wholesale attack on federal regulations protecting the environment, guaranteeing internet freedom, and ensuring consumer safety and labor rights.

The Republican-controlled House has passed a trio of bills that would give Congress effective veto power over future regulations advanced by the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and a host of other federal government agencies.

This is about more than just the new Trump administration silencing federal agency Twitter accounts—it's a brazen GOP effort to fundamentally undermine the power of US regulatory agencies.

These bills would allow Congress to roll back Obama-era regulations en masse, and perhaps more importantly, would give lawmakers the power to effectively veto any future regulations that are not approved by both houses of Congress.

The scope of the Republican assault on the federal regulatory apparatus is unprecedented, according to public interest advocates. At risk are regulations protecting everything from clean air and water, to food and drug safety, to workplace and labor standards, to rules protecting internet freedom and privacy.

"This is a sweeping attack by politicians on the concept of independent, expert regulatory decision-making," Todd O'Boyle, program director at Common Cause, a DC-based public interest group, told Motherboard.

"This is about rewarding the majority party's corporate and ideological paymasters."

The Congressional Review Act (CRA) already gives Congress limited authority to overturn federal regulations on a case-by-case basis. (On Thursday, a coalition of "free market" groups asked Congress to use its CRA authority to rescind FCC rules protecting consumers from broadband industry privacy abuses.)

The three bills passed by the GOP-controlled House, which have yet to be approved by the Senate, would go much further than the CRA.

  • The Midnight Rules Relief Act (MRRA) would give Congress the power to retroactively rescind multiple regulations in one fell swoop, for example by bundling together rules safeguarding clean water, clean air, and power plant emissions. This law would dramatically expand upon the CRA, and allow wholesale deregulation of broad swaths of the economy.
  • The Regulation from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act) would mandate that no federal regulations would be allowed without both House and Senate approval. This would give Congress effective veto power over all federal regulations. This could effectively paralyze the government's ability to promulgate new pro-consumer regulations.
  • The Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) would nullify the so-called Chevron Doctrine, which is a long-standing and well-established legal principle that gives deference to federal agencies when it comes to the enforcement of regulations. This law could have the effect of kneecapping the ability of independent agencies to enforce their own rules.

In a statement, Rep. Ted W. Lieu, a California Democrat who represents Los Angeles County, said he was "highly disturbed" by the passage of the REINS Act.

"By requiring Congress to approve of major rules, Republicans are unabashedly preventing the Administration from protecting the environment, public health, and consumer safety," Lieu said. "More troubling is that Republicans rejected several important Democratic amendments, including ones to reduce lead in drinking water and protect low-income communities from carbon pollution."

In a letter to top Capitol Hill lawmakers, several prominent public interest groups warned that the Republican-backed trio of laws represents a "radical assault on essential consumer safeguards."

"Each bill would upend longstanding and fundamental structures of federal administrative law," the public interest groups wrote in the letter, which was signed by Public Knowledge, Common Cause, Fight for the Future, and other groups. "Taken together, they would take a blunt hatchet to fundamental safeguards upon which we all rely in our daily lives, leaving consumers to the mercy of dominant, monopolistic industry interests to exploit them as they see fit."

"This is the final pathology of Obama-derangement syndrome."

Why is the Republican-controlled Congress doing this? Conservative economists, right-wing policy wonks, and Republican politicians, often funded by big business, have long railed against what they view as regulatory overreach, which they claim has stifled the US economy and killed jobs.

Indeed, GOP lawmakers have been aiming to dismantle the federal regulatory apparatus for years. With Trump in the White House, they now have their chance. "I will sign the REINS Act should it reach my desk as President and more importantly I will work hard to get it passed," Trump told a conservative columnist last year.

Some public interest advocates see another rationale to the Republican agenda.

"This is about ideology and money getting in the way of good sense," said Todd O'Boyle, of Common Cause. "Just look at who funds the campaigns of the congressional majority—largely corporate America. They want to set their own rules, or better yet, have no rules. This is about rewarding the majority party's corporate and ideological paymasters."

Harold Feld, senior vice president at DC-based consumer rights group Public Knowledge, said that Republicans, in their ideological fervor to attack Obama-era regulations, might come to regret passing the REINS Act and the other bills.

"This is the final pathology of Obama-derangement syndrome," Feld told Motherboard. "It's pure ideology, and it's stupid, because it's self-injuring. It's going to make their lives more difficult, because these bills gum up the works and will make it harder for them to promulgate rules they support in the future."

"There's a difference between campaigning and governing," Feld added. "Winning was easy, governing is harder."

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