A key Senate panel on Wednesday took a step toward ambitious changes in the government’s regulatory agencies, approving four bills aimed at lowering cost burdens, weeding out obsolete rules, making rulemaking procedures consistent and boosting public participation.
“We’ve been talking to find the sweet spot, to lay down this first marker to address regulatory reform,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, decrying the $2 trillion he said it costs Americans to comply with regulations. “In the private sector, we’re always reviewing things as a business, but in Washington everything is pretty much additive.” Though the administration has been performing a cost-benefit examination of existing rules, Johnson added, “We need to come up with a subtractive process.”
Much of the groundwork for the bills had been done in subcommittees through bipartisan talks between Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., ranking member Tom Carper, D-Del., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and administration officials.
But Carper spoke as the sole vocal opponent of the proposed change in the overall approach to regulation, warning the efforts to prescribe new procedures for independent regulatory agencies will add delays through court battles and crimp the flexibility of agencies to gather public comment as subject-matter experts see fit.
“The way to a good regulatory process is to write clear legislation and use clear language in committee reports, debate on the floor, in conference committee report language, in input to regulators with whom we can arrange meetings with constituents who can comment on draft rules,” Carper said. He noted that the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has already conducted 175 regulatory reviews it says will save $22 billion over five years.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, countered that because independent agencies are playing a larger role, their rules need to be subjected to more cost-benefit analysis and codification in statute, a position, he said, that is shared by the White House and the president’s Jobs Council.
Carper did succeed in blocking, or postponing, a bill (S. 708) by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, the Regulatory Improvement Act, which would have set up a commission similar to the Base Closing and Realignment Commission to recommend rules for elimination. “It’s not well thought-out,” Carper said. “I can’t imagine finding nine people smart enough to take on all this work in fields like energy, the environment, health, safety, agriculture and transportation.”
The postponement disappointed Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa., who bemoaned that bipartisan negotiations had already resulted in removal of a provision requiring that one rule be eliminated for every one added. “The bill goes too far for my colleagues on the left and not far enough for my colleagues on the right,” she said.
The four bills approved for floor action included:
- Portman’s S. 1607, the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act, to require independent agencies to perform cost-benefit analyses and submit them to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs;
- Lankford and Heitkamp’s S. 1818, the Principled Rulemaking Act, which codifies portions of two executive orders to ensure regulatory agencies only promulgate regulations that are necessary, maximize benefits, and provide the public a meaningful opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process;
- Lankford and Heitkamp’s S. 1820, Early Participation in Regulations Act, which requires agencies to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for major rules in the Federal Register at least 90 days before it publishes its notice of proposed rulemaking;
- Lankford and Heitkamp’s S. 1817, the Smarter Regs Act, which requires agencies promulgating new major rules to include a plan for retrospective review which will ensure the regulation is meeting its objectives and is not causing unnecessary cost.
Separately, the committee approved Carper’s S. 2133, the Fraud Reduction and Data Analytics Act, which would improve agency financial and administrative controls and procedures to assess and mitigate fraud risks, and improve federal agencies' development and use of data analytics.
The committee also cleared S. 2128, the Inspector General Mandates Reporting Act, sponsored by Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. It would begin a process for identifying and eliminating “unnecessary work requirements with the goal of freeing up resources for government watchdogs,” the senators said in a statement.