GOP assault on regulations could undermine air pollution protections

As Congress tries to wrest control from agencies, questions on safety and health for citizens

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Republican U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis

Ed Reinke/ AP

In the latest challenge to regulatory Washington, the Republican-led House on Wednesday passed the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act.” The legislation, also known as the REINS Act, would allow Congress to block the costliest regulations and add new hurdles for some of the more expansive environmental, health and workplace safety protections for citizens.

The REINS Act would send to Congress for a vote any “major rule” expected to have more than a $100 million annual economic effect, significantly increase costs or stifle productivity or innovation. The category could include proposed rules to strengthen protections from toxic air pollution that still plagues hundreds of communities across the country.

Though the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, it provides heightened visibility for an issue that repeatedly has surfaced on the campaign trail and in television advertising in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Republicans, calling for a shift in oversight duties from unelected bureaucrats to elected legislators, say regulations come at a big cost to jobs and the economy. Democrats contend the move would undermine protections that ensure Americans safe food, water, air, workplaces and consumer products.  Only four Democrats sided with Republicans in Wednesday's 241-184 vote.

Republicans assert that the Obama administration has unleashed a torrent of regulations, creating uncertainty in the business community. But a recent examination of government data by Bloomberg found that, 33 months into his presidency, Obama had approved 5 percent fewer regulations than his predecessor, George W. Bush, during his first 33 months.

The proposed legislation alarms progressive groups who say it could subject crucial public protections to the whims of politicians who are easily influenced and sometimes have little understanding of the complexities involved in rulemaking.

The White House issued a statement Tuesday, threatening to veto the legislation and calling it “a radical departure from the longstanding separation of powers.”

As The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has reported, approval of regulations can be a drawn-out process. In setting rules to address almost 200 toxic air pollutants — a task assigned by Congress in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act — the Environmental Protection Agency has been “grossly delinquent,” a federal judge wrote in 2006.

Some of the agency’s proposed rules to address toxic air pollution also face legislation designed to delay or block implementation because of concern about economic effects.

Meanwhile, as iWatch News also has reported, enforcement of rules on the books is often weak or lagging. A once-secret EPA “watch list,” for example, includes serious or chronic offenders of the Clean Air Act that have not faced formal enforcement action — sometimes for years.