Senate Republicans advanced a bill on Wednesday that environmentalists say would thwart rules to protect public health and wildlife by making it easier for companies to tie up regulations in expensive lawsuits.
Shrouded by the political chaos surrounding the White House, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Regulatory Accountability Act that would impose dozens of new requirements on the government rule-making process. That will make it easier for businesses to trip up regulators with unnecessary steps, environmentalists say.
“This bill is for polluters and others who want to escape accountability ― not for the American people,” Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “It would make it virtually impossible to safeguard the public from dirty air, unsafe food, contaminated drinking water and other threats.”
The act proposes adding 53 requirements to the regulatory process, including a mandate that all rules with an economic impact exceeding $110 million go through a lengthy review. The bill would, for example, make it harder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update meat and poultry safety standards, the Food and Drug Administration to issue new rules on opioids and the Mine Safety and Health Association to upgrade protections for workers without clearing high hurdles set by deep-pocketed meat, pharmaceutical and mining companies.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the bill’s sponsor, said it would “provide certainty for businesses” and ensure regulations are cost effective.
“This bill would create a smarter regulatory process that promotes job creation, innovation, and economic growth, while also continuing to protect public health and safety and the environment,” Portman said in a statement. “We will continue to work with members on both sides of the aisle to get their input, and I would urge the Senate to take up this common-sense, bipartisan bill.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, though, argued the act would effectively give “powerful corporate interests like pesticide companies and the oil industry veto power over new regulations.”
“This is a disturbing and deceptive attack on core environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act,” Jamie Pang, endangered species campaigner and policy specialist at the center, said in a statement after the committee vote. “Republicans know conservation laws are popular, so they use cynical bills with misleading titles to confuse the public. Their real goal is to make it almost impossible to create new protections for our air, water and imperiled wildlife.”
The bill is part of a larger assault by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans on the standards used by agencies to draft rules, giving industries more say over the regulations meant to govern them. In March, Trump repealed a regulation to protect workers from wage theft. That same month, the EPA scrapped a rule requiring oil and gas drillers to report leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Last month, the White House killed a regulation meant to help workers save for retirement.
The Senate panel also pushed forward two other bills on Wednesday to buttress the Regulatory Accountability Act.
The Midnight Rules Review Act would allow Congress to overturn new regulations en masse, circumventing specific debate on issues such as federal overtime protections, financial regulations and offshore drilling rights.
The American Sustainable Business Council came out against bill in January. “This would be like taking a chainsaw into surgery,” David Levine, the group’s chief executive said in a statement at the time.
The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny bill ― known as the REINS Act ― would require new regulations with an economic impact larger than $100 million to be approved by Congress. It also would require at least one chamber of Congress to approve any new regulation within 70 days of the rule’s proposal.
“This process would effectively give a small number of senators veto power over any new significant public health and safety protection,” said Jack Pratt, chemicals campaign director at the Environmental Defense Fund.