Much of the debate about the new administration’s regulatory-reform agenda centers on the Regulations from Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would require both houses of Congress to approve all new “major regulations” that have an annual economic impact of $100 million or more.
The Huffington Post’s Carl Pope calls the REINS Act “the most dangerous bill you’ve never heard of” and asserts it is an effort by the “Tea Party-dominated Republican caucus in the House” to repeal regulations designed to protect the public. Pope concludes that passage of the REINS Act would be nothing short of disastrous:
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time, as new health, safety, consumer and labor protection issues arise, all of these laws will effectively have been repealed, with no public debate and no accountability.
Pope’s assessment could not be less accurate. In fact, the REINS Act would remove the bureaucrat-driven rulemaking process from behind closed doors and hold elected officials accountable for new regulations.
Under the current process, Congress escapes scrutiny when regulatory agencies issue new rules that affect the lives of Americans. Unlike executive bureaucrats, elected officials can be held accountable by their constituents. Regulators, lacking this type of accountability, are free to promulgate rules without much regard for the costs they will impose.
Today, federal agencies are so pervasive and seemingly immune to reform that they have been labeled the “unaccountable fourth branch of government.” The costs imposed by the regulatory state—$1.9 trillion in 2015—have now reached more than 10 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. The REINS Act would curb costly or overreaching regulations by subjecting the largest regulations (those with $100 million or more in effects) to the congressional approval process.
Other criticism of the REINS Act asserts that the legislation dismisses scientific expertise. Pope makes a similarly incorrect argument:
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 REINS Act doesn’t require that members of Congress be scientists, but it does ask that they evaluate whether a specific policy would be worth the various costs it imposes on those it aims to protect. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey points out:
As necessary and valuable as scientific expertise is, scientists and federal bureaucrats are not experts at evaluating and making benefit-risk trade-offs. If members of Congress get those trade-offs wrong, voters can fire those whom they believe are not acting in ways that adequately protect their health, safety and livelihoods.
Simply put, the REINS Act would leave the science to the scientists, while leaving Congress with the responsibility to govern.
Contrary to Pope’s argument that the REINS Act is a “dangerous bill you’ve never heard of,” the legislation has passed the House of Representatives in four consecutive sessions of Congress. Pope also misrepresents its legislative history:
Progressives may be counting on the fact that the Senate has previously refused to pass the bill, and that its broad overreaching will doom it. But these are not ordinary times and past behavior is far from reliable in predicting today’s politics.
The Senate previously failed to pass the REINS Act, not because the measure overreached, but because Senate Democrats were unwilling to take power away from their own party’s administration. Without 60 votes, the measure couldn’t progress. Even if it had, the Obama administration would have vetoed any attempt to restrain executive branch lawmaking.
When the legislature fails to create policies the executive branch arrogates policymaking abilities to itself. Democratic self-government requires that policies are made by the branch closest to the people.
The president’s endorsement of the REINS Act presents a unique opportunity for both parties. Through the REINS Act, Republicans can reduce the cost of the regulatory state and Democrats can cut the Trump administration’s executive power.
If Congress really wants to assert its power over a potentially unchecked executive branch, the Senate should not hold its horses on the REINS Act. Because what is wrong with Congress voting on major policies?
Image by Four Oaks