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Going Off the Rails Against the REINS Act

Today the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the REINS Act, a bill to enhance political accountability over regulatory decisions. The bill has two essential features. First, it bars new “major” regulations (those anticipated to cost more than $100 million annually) from taking effect unless approved by both houses of Congress. Second, it creates an expedited review process that forces each house to vote on each major rule. So while requiring Congressional approval, REINS prevents members of Congress from ducking their responsibility to vote yay or nay.

REINS is a controversial bill, in part because it effectively limits the delegation of broad regulatory authority to federal agencies, but to read some critics, REINS would usher in an anti-regulatory armageddon. While I support the legislation, for reasons detailed in these posts (and summarized in this NRO piece), I recognize that there are reasonable arguments to be made on the other side. What’s so interesting watching this debate, however, is how many opponents refuse to make them, relying instead on inaccurate and fanciful characterizations of the bill. It’s telling when opponents of legislation are unable or unwilling to describe it accurately when making their case.

To take one example, US PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski argues that the REINS Act would lead to unsafe toys on the market and emasculate the CPSC.

One bill, the REINS Act, would not only allow but require congressional meddling in the implementation of all public health and safety rules. A single member of Congress, at the behest of some powerful special interest or campaign contributor, could block the public database, block science-based lead standards for children’s products, block crib safety rules or any number of protections that provide a safer consumer marketplace.

The idea that REINS would allow a single member of Congress to block new regulations is a common claim. The Center for American Progress makes it here. It’s also false. The bill expressly limits debate, waives procedural objections, and requires a vote on the merits. Under REINS, if some members of Congress wish to block needed safety rules at the behest of a special interest, they will have to do it out in the open, and will only succeed if they can win a majority vote. How could this undermine legislative accountability? It’s true REINS requires that legislative approval occur within a set period of time, but it also ensures the vote occurs before the deadline expires.

The NYT worries REINS will “undermine the executive branch.” Really. Why? Because it will be too easy for a majority in either House to prevent a President from rewriting regulatory requirements. The NYT also argues REINS is “deeply undemocratic.” Got that? Requiring legislative votes on major regulations — that two or three of the most consequential regulatory decisions made by federal agencies — is “undemocratic,” whereas allowing agencies to rely upon decades-old statutes to remake industries and reconfigure whole sectors of the economy is not.

The REINS Act would dramatically alter how major rules are made, but it would do so by making sure the people’s representatives have a greater say on — and greater accountability for — the major regulatory actions our federal government takes. If the public wants greater regulation of environmental or other problems, REINS won’t stand in the way. Only if the public is skeptical of such regulations, or unconcerned by legislative vetoes of proposed rules, will REINS slow down the adoption of new rules. And perhaps that’s what the REINS Act’s opponents are truly afraid of: A regulatory process that more accurately reflects what the public wants.

UPDATE: For unhinged commentary on the REINS Act, it’s hard to do better than this piece which, among other things, claims the Act would “essentially return environmental regulation to 1890s standards – when corporations polluted with impunity.” That’s an astounding charge given that REINS a) does not have any effect whatsoever to regulations already on the books and b) would apply equally to deregulatory initiatives, such as any effort by a future President to repeal existing regulations.

UPDATE 12/8/11: Yesterday, the House passed the REINS Act on an almost exclusively party-line vote, 241–184.  All the House Republicans voted for the bill, as did four Democrats.  Though the bill passed the House, it’s not about to be enacted into law.  The Senate is unlikely to take up the bill and President Obama has promised to veto the REINS Act should it somehow reach his desk.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.

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