WASHINGTON -- The House passed a measure Tuesday to dramatically restrict the government's ability to enact any significant new regulations or safety standards, potentially hamstringing the efforts of every federal agency, from financial regulators to safety watchdogs.
The measure, called the Regulatory Accountability Act, has been passed by the House before, but stood no chance in the Senate when it was controlled by Democrats. With the GOP in the majority, it is at least likely to get a vote in the upper chamber. The White House has threatened to veto it.
Opponents dub the measure a "stealth attack" because it targets obscure parts of the regulatory process that very few people understand, but has such broad scope that it would affect all agencies, from independent regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission to executive branch agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
"This is using that arcane process to basically undermine the entire regulatory system of the United States," said Ronald White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, which opposes the bill.
"It really covers the entire spectrum of public health and safety, worker health and safety, financial protections, consumer product protections -- just about everything that you can think about for which the government has a responsibility to ensure the public is being protected," White said.
The primary way the bill would work is by making just about every step an agency takes on a major new rule subject to numerous legal challenges. It does that by defining major rules as ones that have direct costs of more than $100 million or indirect costs above $1 billion, or would have significant costs for just about anyone, including government. Then it requires that for any such rule, agencies must make public their cost-benefit analyses of the new regulation and choose the cheapest option.
Agencies already do cost analyses, but their primary legal responsibility is to choose the rule that offers the best safety for consumers, workers or investors. Also currently, not all of those decisions can be reviewed by courts. The Regulatory Accountability Act would open up all the elements of a new rule to judicial challenges, including the science and various expert analyses. The bill also does not define how to measure costs or benefits, leaving even that interpretation up to someone who might want to challenge a regulation.
"It’s basically modifying the Administrative Procedures Act, which has been in existence for 60 years, and saying we’re going to change that whole process in a way that would require agencies to do years more analyses, to expand analyses in ways that we don’t define but which would allow industry to challenge any regulation as being inadequate or inappropriate," White said, adding that some 74 new procedures and requirements would be slapped on agencies.
"This is a paperwork creation bill. This is a government inefficiency bill," Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said during House floor debate Tuesday.
But Republicans insisted the measure was meant to streamline federal regulation, and prevent new bothersome, overly burdensome rules. Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said no one wants to stop smart regulation, but that Congress should make it harder to pass bad regulation, which he argued already costs $1.86 trillion a year and weighs heavily on Americans.
"All across this country people who have been struggling, people whose jobs and wages have been disappearing, people who have been leaving the labor pool for the dependency pool, people who have seen no way possible to start a new business, can feel in their bones that this American dream, the dream that they cherish and their children need is slipping away," Goodlatte said before the measure passed 250-175, with eight Democrats in favor.
"What is killing this dream? It’s not ordinary Americans, It’s not global phenomena, it’s not natural disasters," Goodlatte argued. "More than anything else, it is the endless drain of the resources that takes working people’s hard-earned wages to Washington and Washington’s endless erection of regulatory roadblocks in the path of opportunity and growth."
Goodlatte and several other Republicans pointed to a study first done several years ago for their estimate of the costs of regulations, but Democrats noted the study has been challenged by many critics, including the Congressional Research Service, which pointed out that while the study used data from the George W. Bush administration on the costs, it ignored the Bush White House data on the benefits of regulation, which out-weighed the costs in almost every year.
Some Republican backers admitted that they want to make it harder for agencies to make rules.
"It's supposed to be difficult to enact laws and regulations," said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). "We've got to pass something out of the House, we've got to pass something out of the Senate and get it signed by the president to enact a law, but a bureaucrat can do it basically with the stroke of a pen."
He did not note that regulations are written to carry out laws passed by Congress.
Business groups strongly favor the bill.
UPDATE: 8:50 p.m. -- In response to the House passage, Wake Forest University law professor and Center for Progressive Reform scholar Sid Shapiro released a statement that said the rule-making process would be delayed by 10 years or more under the bill.
"House Republicans voted today to delay clean air, clean water, safer workplaces, and less toxic products for their constituents," he said. "In addition, they have given Wall Street a green light to re-engage in behavior risky enough to collect enormous profits while taxpayers are left footing the bill for the inevitable devastating consequences."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.