Elizabeth Kolbert is a measured, thoughtful observer of government who writes for the New Yorker. So when she characterizes a bill as a measure to “undermine public safety,” I listen.
A handy rule of thumb in Washington is that the more pernicious the act, the more high-minded the title. Thus, last week, the House of Representatives approved the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2017, also known as the REINS Act. The bill would strip the executive branch of the power to issue significant new rules on topics ranging from air quality to food safety. In normal times, such a power grab by Congress would surely face a veto threat from the President, but, of course, these are not normal times.
Under the latest version of the REINS Act, a regulation with “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” could not take effect without congressional approval. In this way, either the House or the Senate could easily scuttle a major new regulation—one that requires food producers to sanitize their tools, for example—simply by doing nothing. “Given partisan gridlock in Congress, this could result in a de facto ban on new public interest safeguards,” Alison Cassady, the director of domestic energy policy at the Center for American Progress, noted in a recent post on the bill.
As Kolbert points out, agencies don’t impose regulations having “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more” overnight; such measures require considerable research and go through lengthy and multiple levels of review and public comment. Of course, these are also precisely the regulations likely to be opposed by large corporations, in areas such as energy, workers’ safety, and lending practices, who often don’t like them.
According to the climate-change-focussed Web site DeSmogBlog, among the REINS Act’s most vigorous supporters are the various lobbying organizations sponsored by the Koch brothers. (During the 2016 election cycle, contributions from Koch Industries and its affiliates, to individual candidates and to PACs, came to more than ten million dollars, according to figures compiled by the Web site Open Secrets.)
“Tellingly,” Steve Horn, of DeSmogBlog, noted recently, “the only person President-elect Donald Trump has spoken to on the record about REINS” is a conservative political activist named Phil Kerpen, who, for several years, served as a vice-president of the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity. In an op-ed published in USA Today last month, Kerpen said that, in 2015, Trump’s campaign provided him with a statement in which Trump vowed to “sign the REINS Act should it reach my desk as President.”
In the wake of the election, I have been binge-watching old Star Trek series. (It’s healthier than drinking myself into a stupor every night…) When I first read about the REINS ACT, I couldn’t help thinking that it was something one would expect from the Ferengi, an alien species that elevated pursuit of profit over every other value, and lived according to “rules of acquisition.”
There is a substantial likelihood that the REINS Act would violate the Constitutional Separation of Powers, but even if it fails to win Senate approval, or passes and is subsequently struck down by the courts, it is only one element of what is sure to be a wholesale assault on regulatory activity during the Trump Administration.
Trump’s cabinet choices have all evidenced a contempt for regulation entirely unconnected to the specific merits or demerits of any particular rule, and the aptly-named “lunatic caucus” of the House of Representatives is enthusiastic about allowing businesses to decide for themselves how to operate–insisting that market forces are sufficient to rein in any harmful behaviors.
Even the Ferengi know better. Like the GOP these days, they just don’t care…..