Senate Hearing to Bring Some Sanity to the Debate Over Federal Regulatory Policy

James Goodwin

July 31, 2013

Tomorrow, a new panel in the Senate Judiciary Committee—the Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights, and Agency Action—will bring some much-need sanity to the discussion of federal regulatory policy when it holds a hearing entitled “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis.” What’s so refreshing about this hearing is that it starts from the premise that blocked and delayed safeguards are a problem that needs to be solved. 

Crucially, this hearing will provide an opportunity to shine a light on the costs that are imposed on the public when regulations aimed at protecting people and the environment are unnecessarily delayed. These costs represent real harm to real people—and they are by definition preventable.

 Previously, in this space, I examined the costs to the public that would result from the new delays to three rules that were announced in the Spring 2013 Regulatory Agenda. These included at least 300 premature deaths from the delay of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Rearview Mirror Rule and at least 1,000 premature deaths and 1,467 non-fatal heart attacks that would result from the delay of the EPA’s updated ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS). All of these costs are preventable, but not prevented.

Several of the scheduled witnesses for tomorrow’s Senate Judiciary hearing will help to provide a clear picture of what the costs of regulatory delay entail. CPR President Rena Steinzor will testify about how environmental regulations have benefited the public greatly, and how the continued delay of several pending safeguards—such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules to control disposal of hazardous coal ash waste and to require cleaner-burning automobile fuel—produce great harm.

Tomorrow’s hearing is a welcome development, because when it comes to the issue of federal regulatory policy, sanity has been in short supply on Capitol Hill for the last four-plus years. And the timing of the hearing couldn’t be better, as it takes place during what House Republicans are calling “Stop Government Abuse Week,” a week dedicated to bashing public servants and voting on ill-conceived bills, including the REINS Act and the Energy Consumers Relief Act, which if passed, would make it all but impossible for the EPA and other agencies to carry out their congressionally mandated missions of safeguarding the public.

As the two anti-regulatory bills illustrate, House Republicans have a pretty strange conception of what constitutes “government abuse.” The apparent “problem” these bills seek to address is when federal agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and others—follow the clear instructions that Congress gave to them and issue regulations in accordance with the provisions of duly enacted law.  Evidently, the EPA’s efforts to limit toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, as it is required to do so under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (which, by the way, passed the House by a whopping 401 to 21 margin, with the support of several of the current House GOP’s most outspoken EPA critics, including Don Young of Alaska and Joe Barton and Lamar Smith of Texas), aren’t an example of our constitutional system of government in action; this is bureaucratic overreach and a brazen intrusion on individual freedom of choice. Only in the warped minds of House Republicans could the implementation of congressional mandates—or, as Article II of the Constitution so dryly puts it, “taking Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”—rise to the level of such flagrant government abuse that it necessitates an entire week to redress.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad—and if it didn’t threaten to have such disastrous consequences for public health, safety, and the environment.

For too long, House Republicans have been free to carry out their anti-regulatory crusade, buoyed by their disregard of the very real harms that regulatory delay imposes. So ingrained are the tendencies, I do not expect them to change overnight. But, hopefully tomorrow’s hearing can serve a crucial first step in reframing how regulatory policy is understood and debated on both ends of Capitol Hill.

The hearing is set to take place at 2:00 p.m. in Hearing Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

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