The REINS Act doesn’t go far enough

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In a recent Rasmussen poll, more than half of likely voters (51 percent) said they believe EPA regulations should require congressional approval before they are implemented.  Given that approval ratings for Congress itself hover near single digits, that voters would embrace congressional oversight is a remarkable finding.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee has sent to the floor a resolution supporting a “Regulatory Freedom Amendment,” which requests that Congress to propose an amendment to the U. S. Constitution reading:

Whenever one-quarter of the members of the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate transmits to the President their written declaration of opposition to a proposed federal regulation, it shall require a majority vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate to adopt that regulation.

Is it a fool’s errand or simple public relations stunt to ask Congress to approve major federal regulations?  Not necessarily.  Last year, the U.S. House passed on a bipartisan basis H.R. 367, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act of 2013. The bill had been introduced in every session of Congress since 2009, and this time was authored by Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind. The House passed it in the 112th Congress, as well, but the Senate never even held a hearing on it, even though it had 31 Senators co-sponsors.

The act would require Congress and the president to share responsibility for every federal regulation projected to cost taxpayers more than $100 million, a list that numbers more than 100 in the Obama administration alone.  In fact, federal agencies have finalized over 3,500 regulations in each of the last three years and added an average of 70,000 pages per year into the Federal Register – adding some $1.75 trillion in annual costs, according to one estimate cited by the Harvard Political Review.

Why take on the political heavy lift of a constitutional amendment, when there is so much support for the REINS Act, which could be easily enacted, particularly if the Senate goes Republican?  REINS would be extremely helpful to mitigate the problem of delegating much, if not most, of the important work of lawmaking to unelected bureaucrats in 319 federal executive and independent agencies.  In areas like health care and financial services, where the federal government has intervened extensively in recent years, nearly every regulation would qualify on economic grounds under the $100 million threshold.

But what about IRS harassment of non-profits?  Public awareness of the politicization of a critical federal agency, whose employees gave 92 percent of their PAC money to Democrats in the last cycle, has damaged Americans’ faith in an institution that wields awesome power over them.

In late November, the IRS issued a “notice of proposed rulemaking” which broadly expands the definition under section 501(c)(4) of “candidate-related political activity.”  The American Civil Liberties Union has called out the administration on these proposed regulations, which threaten “to discourage or sterilize an enormous amount of political discourse in America.”  The ACLU says that the proposed rules “could seriously chill legitimate issue advocacy from nonprofits on the right and left, particularly smaller ones.”  In combination with their assessment that the rules are unlikely to stop activities the administration is trying to curtail, the effect would be the creation of “the worst of all worlds” for free speech.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has defended the proposed regulations by claiming that nonprofit groups are “going after people who are trying to improve the country.” Like himself, I suppose.  But it is not the economic effect of curtailing participation in events featuring candidates, or voter education that mentions a candidate that would be a problem.  The threat is to fundamental rights, and failure to reach the $100 million threshold would preclude congressional scrutiny under the REINS act, if it were law.

For this reason, it is worthwhile to ask that Congress provide us this additional protection.  I would like to see Sen. Reid defend this kind of regulation with his vote, if he chooses, and not just his projections on how Americans feel about free speech limitations.

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