Regulatory Purgatory: New Legislation Would Eviscerate Our Nation’s Public Health, Safety, and Environmental Laws

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | October 4, 2011, 1:55 pm EDT
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I wasn’t born when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire. I’m more familiar with the R.E.M. song Cuyahoga that reflects on the event. But I do know that this is something I would prefer never to live through.

The Cuyahoga fire led to the Clean Water Act, and Congress believed then what few decision-makers seem to recognize now: sometimes, it’s entirely appropriate to prioritize the protection of people and the environment.

Photo of Cuyahoga River burning

Photo: EPA

Analysis by the Center for Progressive Reform shows that this prioritization can support long-term economic growth. And in today’s New York Times, former Reagan and George H.W. Bush economist Bruce Bartlett cites Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that regulations are not job killers. “Regulatory uncertainty is a canard invented by Republicans that allows them to use current economic problems to pursue an agenda supported by the business community year in and year out,” he writes. “In other words, it is a simple case of political opportunism, not a serious effort to deal with high unemployment.”

So it’s lamentable that Congress this year, in the name of job creation, has made many attempts to chip away at public protections and prevent federal agencies from using science to carry out our nation’s public health, safety, and environmental laws. And now, a new, ill-advised piece of legislation represents the biggest threat yet to the progress we have made in recent decades.

A radical proposal

The innocuously-named Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) is a truly radical proposal that would upend the way agencies make the rules to implement the laws that Congress approves. It would supersede existing laws—even science-based laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act—and require federal regulators to jump through impossible hoops to carry out their agencies’ missions. It is difficult to overestimate how much this legislation, if passed and signed by the president, would confound the government’s ability to react quickly to emerging threats.

The bill could subvert attempts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create new safety standards for toys and infant car seats. It could stymie the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to keep Listeria out of the cantaloupe you eat. It would make it extremely difficult for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to continue to protect workers from long-term health conditions like black lung.

All of these efforts and many more could be thrust into regulatory purgatory. In fact, the Regulatory Accountability Act could be better named the Regulatory Purgatory Act.

So what, exactly, would the RAA do?

The legislation would require that costs to businesses be prioritized over the public good. Many of our nation’s fundamental public protection laws work well because they are grounded in science-based analysis and insulated from political and industry pressures.

The legislation would move power away from federal science-based agencies and concentrate it in the courts. Wealthy special interests would be able to challenge regulatory proposals in court at multiple junctures, concentrating power in the legal maneuvering of lawyers and removing it from scientific experts in federal agencies.

The legislation would further bleed the budgets of already compromised federal agencies. Federal agencies are already straining to carry out their mandates in the face of shrinking budgets and increased workloads. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, has a backlog of hundreds of species that are candidates for the endangered species list because it hasn’t had the resources to determine whether or not the species belong on the list. Under the legislation, each determination would require considerably more time and money.

The legislation would make delay the name of the game. Major regulations often take years to be developed, finalized, and implemented. The legislation would require the government to jump through multiple additional hoops that would stall and sometimes paralyze new rules.

A false premise

Again, while the bill’s authors claim that they are trying to ease regulatory burdens for businesses, they fail to recognize that most regulations have little negative impact on employment for small businesses. A recent poll found that only 13 percent of small business owners think that regulations are their biggest problem. And another poll of business economists found that 80 percent “felt that the current regulatory environment was ‘good’ for American businesses and the overall economy.”

Coalition for Sensible Safeguards logoUCS helps lead the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS), an assemblage of more than sixty organizations that provides the information, resources, and strategic capacity to explain, defend, and advocate for the country’s system of public protections. Several members of the CSS have posted their own informative commentaries about the potential consequences of this legislation, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, OMB Watch, and the Center for Progressive Reform.

Just think about the products and services you use every day that you have confidence in precisely because of our government. American families deserve untainted food, safe drugs, clean air and water, and workplace protections. We’ve believed this for nearly 100 years. And we need to let Congress and the president know that now is not the time to turn back.

Posted in: Scientific Integrity

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  • I realize that many who blog do not actualy have any first hand expirience and rely on what they hear and read. They form their opinion and now for them that is a fact.
    For those of us who have actually experienced the implementation of the Clean Air & Clean Water Acts, we have actualy witnessed the improvement of Air & Water Quality. Many of us have also witnessed the reluctance of industry, who is causing the problem, to implement the clean up requirements of the acts.
    Leave the USA and travel to the countries that ignore air & water quality see first hand how terrible it really is, then come home and appreciate what our scientists, engineers, etc have done to improve and protect our air & water quality. Then join in to help convince the other countries to clean up our Air & Water Quality throughout the world.

  • Michael Halpern

    Thanks, Katherine. For more interesting reading, here’s a commentary in the Bangor Daily News from the Maine Small Business Coalition on this and other bad legislation:

  • Katherine H

    Seems to me that there is a ton of information in there about what this legislation would do–plus helpful links to the bill itself, several polls, and other analysis by other organizations to learn more. What specifically do you want, Kathleen?

    • Kathleen

      I read the proposed legislation and didn’t find it reckless or radical. What parts, exactly, are radical? Why should’t rule makers need to justify the rules? Why shouldn’t cost be a factor to consider? Why shouldn’t the public know where the source of the authority comes from? Let’s just acknowledge that this article is advocacy, plain and simple. I would expect more balanced reporting of facts from an organization of scientists.

  • Kathleen

    Mr. Halpern’s article is heavy on rhetoric and advocacy and skinny on facts. So much for science.