The 2014 election is ancient history, the lame duck session is a distant memory, and the 114th Congress is ready for work. The 113th Congress was one of the most unproductive and unliked in history. Initial signs that the next two years will be any better are unpromising.
The House and Senate are both devoting significant chunks of time to passing well-worn Keystone XL legislation that the President has threatened to veto. Last week the House voted to approve the Keystone pipeline for the 10th time. This week they’ve moved on to similarly well-tread and unproductive terrain by revisiting and passing another measure that Obama recently threatened to veto: one with much greater potential for harm to the government, let alone the environment.
The Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), which the House passed on Tuesday, is ostensibly aimed at cutting costly regulations imposed by federal and independent agencies, but it would actually make it much more difficult to pass and enforce protective measures overseen by the government.
“It is actually a stealth attack on all the various statutes Congress has passed over the last 40 years to protect public health environmental quality,” according to Ronald White, director of Regulatory Policy at the Center for Effective Government. White told ThinkProgress that the RAA adds at least 70 new procedural steps into a process that already takes years for agencies to navigate through Congress. He said this is part of “a whole slew of anti-regulation legislation” that he expects to see in coming months.
“I think Congress is trying to lay down some political markers and make some political statements,” said White. “A lot of these bills were proposed in the last Congress and we expect many more that will be probably very close to the same.”
The RAA for its part would hamper the rule issuing and enforcing processes currently in place for clean air, clean water, safe food, stable financial markets, safe workplaces, and fair wages, according to the Center for Effective Government.
For one, the measure would require all federal agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses including speculative estimates of “indirect” costs — even when some agencies are barred from relying on cost-benefit analyses for adopting standards. For instance, the RAA would require the EPA to consider the cost of any new clean air rule, even though the Clean Air Act prohibits the EPA from factoring in cost when adopting new standards.
“The whole point is that these acts all say that costs come into account after you’ve made a decision to protect public health,” said White. “The Clean Air Act says costs should be considered in strategies, but not in what constitutes appropriate levels of air quality. That’s based on science, not cost.”
Furthermore, the RAA would mandate that federal agencies adopt the least costly rule unless the agency can demonstrate that the additional benefits of any alternative justify additional costs. The legislation would also allow any interested party to ask an agency to hold a public hearing to challenge data that the agency used in drafting proposed rules. The only way to avoid the public hearing is for the agency to revoke the information being petitioned. It is not hard to foresee industry lobbyists taking advantage of this to request numerous public hearings relating to information they see as harmful to their goals.
“The goal of administrative procedure is to ensure that the government’s adoption of regulation is accountable and fair, but not at the expense of hamstringing the ability of agencies to fulfill the public interest,” wrote Sidney A. Shapiro, Wake Forest University law professor and Center for Progressive Reform scholar, this week. “The House obviously has no such concern.”
Shapiro writes that agencies already take four to eight years to “promulgate” complex regulations, and that the new requirements would add two or three years to the process.
“It’s telling that the newly-empowered Republican majority in Congress has made it its first order of business to protect the profits of its corporate benefactors at the expense of the public interest,” writes Shapiro.
In an analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Celia Wexler, a representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS, says this “special-interest interference” jeopardizes the mandates of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. “The RAA emphasizes the costs to businesses, not the long-term benefits to the public,” she writes.
The Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act have offered economic benefits as well over the 40 years since their passage. The Administration has been pursuing an update to the CWA that would protect about 20 million acres of wetland and two million miles of streams. A recent analysis found that the economic benefits of this update would be between $300.7 million and $397.6 million.
The CAA’s track record is even more impressive. A 2013 study by the EPA concluded that between 1970 and 1990, the total monetized health benefits of the Act was between $5.6 and $49.4 trillion. By removing harmful pollutants from the air, the CAA helps people stay healthy — keeping them at work, at school, and out of the hospital.