REINS Act claims to cut red tape, but it’s way scarier than that

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Joel Dyer

Neither house of Congress pulled any punches as they kicked off the legislative body’s 115th session on Tuesday, Jan. 3; the Senate set to work introducing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while the House presented an ill-fated attempt to gut an independent congressional ethics office.

That same day, the House set forward its own motion to repeal the ACA, as well as one that would annul the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, along with a proposal to end U.S. membership in the United Nations. Both chambers introduced bills that would end federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

It was a busy and unsurprisingly partisan first day for the Republican-controlled Congress.

But amid the flurry of business, the real pièce de résistance for the House of Representatives was a piece of legislation that would place Congress in charge of approving all major regulations put forth by federal agencies — the same Congress that’s caused a government shutdown 12 times in the last 36 years due to an inability to pass a budget, the one that employs members who want to dismantle the office that investigates their ethical conduct, would be in charge of understanding and then authorizing every major regulation suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the dozens of other federal agencies tasked with protecting the health and welfare of U.S. citizens.

Using a marginally clever bit of wordplay, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act masquerades as a useful piece of legislation that will “rein in” governmental overreach, cut red tape, eradicate irrelevant and costly rules, and empower Congress — the “people’s branch” of government — to do so.

In practice, REINS would require both houses of Congress to approve any agency regulation that would impose at least $100 million a year in costs to the economy. If Congress fails to approve a regulation within 70 days, the rule becomes invalid and never sees the light of day.

Though it’s touted as a way to quash bureaucracy, REINS is intended to clear a path for the oil and gas industry and Wall Street to run roughshod over the American public — and the bill is already one-third of the way to the finish line, having passed through the House, 237 to 187, on Jan. 5. It’s now on its way to the Senate, and if it passes there, to the Oval Office.

In December 2015, then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told conservative columnist Phil Kerpen (former vice president for policy of the Koch-founded and -funded Americans for Prosperity) that he would sign the REINS act should it reach his desk as president, “and more importantly,” he said, “I will work hard to get it passed.”

Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner did not respond to requests for statements on REINS, but Gardner co-sponsored REINS in 2015.

REINS isn’t a new proposal, first surfacing in the Senate in 2011, where South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint introduced it. The bill has been reintroduced every session since, predominately in the House.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO 2nd District) has voted against REINS each time it’s passed through the House over the last six years because he says it prevents the federal government from doing the most fundamental part of its job: protecting people.

“It would basically completely tie up our government and consumer protection efforts in red tape, because every type of environmental protection and food and water protection, and everything else we do to protect people’s health and welfare would be … brought to Congress for every detail,” he says.

While it’s Congress’ job to task agencies with their mission, REINS purposefully ignores logistics, Polis says: “[Federal agencies] can’t possibly come under legislative management on every single detail or they’ll never be able to get their job done; Congress simply can’t hold that many votes and members of Congress can’t cast that many votes with every little detail and every thing every agency is supposed to do to protect health and welfare.”

Mark Squillace, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Boulder, provides a bit of math to back up Polis’ logistical concerns.

“Oh God, the numbers of volumes [of regulations],” he says. “There are 50 titles in the Code of Federal Regulations, and many of those titles have multiple volumes; if you look at just the EPA Title 40 of the regulations, it’s probably a dozen volumes itself.”

A fact sheet produced by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that REINS would bring as many as 100 additional measures to the congressional floor each session.

There’s no lack of industry financing and glad-handing at play in an effort to get REINS on the books. Koch Industries began lobbying for the REINS Act in 2010, according to lobbying disclosure reports obtained by DeSmogBlog. Quickly thereafter, and ever since then, the energy industry joined in, most recently en mass through the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Western Energy Alliance.

“It shouldn’t be any surprise that the energy industry would want to escape the protections that President Obama laid out through the EPA and Clean Power Plan rule,” Polis says. “Trump is already reversing many of those, but what the energy industry wants is to prevent any future president from protecting our environment.”

But environmental protections aren’t the only regulations threatened by REINS.

“You name it,” says David Goldston, director for government affairs at NRDC, and a former Republican staffer on Capital Hill for more than 20 years. “Think of any problem that could arise … a new foodborne illness appears; banks come up with some new instrument like they did with the ones that led to the collapse during the great recession and the government wants to protect people from that. Being able to get protections from any of those kinds of assaults on the public would be next to impossible to put in place under this law.”

Goldston calls REINS “one of the most radical — without exaggeration — legislative measures in American history.” He and CU professor Squillace agree that the most disturbing part of REINS is a provision added just this year by House Republicans.

“It’s a provision that essentially says that every year for 10 years, each agency is supposed to submit to Congress 10 percent of their regulations so that after that 10-year period, every single existing regulation will have been sent to the Congress,” Squillace explains. “And for any major rules in those packages [those that would impose $100 million or more on the economy], they are no longer rules unless Congress affirmatively adopts them as law. That would likely wipe out massive parts of our current regulatory law, and that would fundamentally change the nature of our government in ways we’ve not seen since before the New Deal.

“This is a big deal,” he adds.

There is considerable concern that REINS will pass through Congress and make its way to the president’s desk this year considering the historic control Republicans have over all three branches of government, but Squillace says he believes the Senate will mount an effective offensive, perhaps using the filibuster. If REINS passes, however, Squillace wonders what he will teach in his one of his courses that focuses on the regulatory process — “a lot of time on the REINS Act,” he surmises.

REINS is only one of a number of proposed bills looking to “cut” regulatory red tape this session: The Midnight Rules Relief Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017 are also on the table.

But Goldston calls REINS “the most extreme, the most devastating, the most radical.”

“Again, the fact that this is the [bill House Republicans] made their signature bill shows what they like to do,” he says. “They like to call these things regulatory reform. This is not remotely about reforming the system; this is about shutting it down.”