Why do small government advocates love the REINS act, which forces Congress to micromanage? Perhaps because it allows business to externalize more costs. The “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” Act of 2017 would require Congress to individually approve any new regulations with “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more.” Remember, Congress can’t regularly agree on much of anything, including passing a budget. Assigning them the task of micromanaging every agency’s regulatory interpretation is ridiculous. It seems set up to fail, but there’s a reason for that. Both chambers would have only 70 days to pass the rules in question, or the rules expire. Rather than a Congress that micromanages them, “freedom” advocates are hoping for a government that doesn’t govern at all.
You may not have heard of the REINS Act, but if it passes, it will affect your life anyway. A sleeper of sorts, stuffed in between more obviously outrageous legislation, H.R.26 passed through the House in January.
The “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” Act of 2017 would require Congress to individually approve any new regulations with “an annual effect on the economy of $100,000,000 or more.” Ideally, Congress passes laws that set goals, then hands those laws to executive agencies that hammer out the specifics. These agencies, at least compared to Congress, are less partisan and exist further away from the congressional circus. Comprised of career bureaucrats or appointed specialists, these agencies take broad policies and determine how each will be executed. For example, specialists would interpret a law limiting emissions with far more precision and specialized knowledge than a politician.
The act would require agencies to offer up 10% of their regulations for a thumb’s-up (or down) every year. Further, both chambers would have only 70 days to pass the rules in question, or the rules expire. Remember, Congress can’t regularly agree on much of anything, including passing a budget. Assigning them the task of micromanaging every agency’s regulatory interpretation of laws already passed by Congress is ridiculous. It seems set up to fail.
There’s a reason for that. Much like other bills with idealistic-sounding names, the REINS act hides a nefarious purpose behind a virtuous façade. Ostensibly, the act is about reining in executive overreach, saving money, and making government more accountable to the people. However, looking into the act’s supporters reveals backers such as the Koch brothers, the Heritage Foundation, and ALEC. They have never advocated for what conservatives call “big government,” so why would they be calling for micromanagement to this degree? Perhaps they realize that a divided, busy Congress has almost no chance of ever agreeing on complicated regulatory specifics. Rather than a Congress that micromanages them, “freedom” advocates are hoping for a government that doesn’t govern at all. Removing the playground chaperones leaves us to the mercy of bullies.
For his part, Trump supports the REINS act and stated his intent to sign it, should it arrive on his desk. The act supports his campaign promise (and executive order) that for every new regulation, two old regulations will be eliminated. (“So important!”) The legal basis of Trump’s supposed ability to toss out established laws on a whim remains unclear. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t try something new and disruptive.
A Message from President-Elect Donald J. Trump, posted by Transition 2017. He promises to kill two regulations for every new one at about the 1:30 mark.
The problem with killing regulations for their own sake is that regulations are usually there for a reason. Like fences, we should understand why they’re in place before tearing them down. It would be crazy, for example, to remove two guardrails for every new guardrail placed along a dangerous freeway. Bad regulations could certainly exist, but frankly, I’d expect those to be the ones supported by the same folks who support the REINS act. Well-intentioned regulations protect us from dangers and excesses. Laws that limit corporate pollution, for example, protect clean air and water for the rest of us. Both sides of the balance sheet matter; a good reason to consider more than merely the cost.
Speaking of the balance sheet, supporters who say that the act would save money by killing expensive regulations ignore the possibility that not enacting a regulatory protection could be even more expensive in the long run. Imagine that a particular rule against dumping waste in rivers would cost $100,000,000 to implement, and therefore doesn’t pass. Advocates for saving that cost by failing to implement the rule aren’t counting the cost that dumping waste would accrue to the economy, such as cleaning up the dumped waste, health problems for people living downstream, cities needing alternative sources of water, farmers irrigating with toxins, etc. If those distributed costs total more than the cost of implementing the rule, we’re not really saving money, are we? The question becomes not how much it costs, but whose ox is gored. Should our hypothetical polluters pay for the mess, or innocent bystanders?
The House of Representatives has passed versions of the REINS act before, but never the Senate. Right now, only a few brave Senate Democrats stand between us and an all-out assault on many of the protections we count on to keep us safe.