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House-Approved REINS Act Threatens to Stall Regulation and Oversight

September 11, 2013

Imagine a nation in which every “economically significant” regulatory measure–whether related to healthcare, environmental protection, air travel, pharmaceutical oversight, or even Wall Street banking–were subject to a yes-or-no vote from one of the most polarized and gridlocked Congresses in history. On the face of it, it sounds as if nothing would ever be accomplished, that regulations would simply wither away from inaction, placing individuals at the mercy of businesses and corporations.

On August 2, the House of Representatives voted to move us slightly closer to such a world when they passed a bill called the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act. The goal of this legislation is to remove (or at least forestall) much of the federal regulation that members of the house see as harmful to businesses and their bottom lines.

The act would, according to an article in the environmental magazine Grist, “require that every ‘economically significant’ federal regulation (one that has an annual impact of $100 million or more) be affirmatively approved by Congress. Again, no rule would go into effect until it has been voted through by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. If a regulation is not voted on within seventy legislative working days of being sent to Congress, it is ‘tabled.’ That is, it dies.”

The same article in Grist reports that this would mean that between 50 and 100 regulations every year would have to pass through both houses of Congress and the president, which, in an era of extreme polarization, partisanship, filibustering, and gridlock, may have the effect of killing or indefinitely stalling many existing regulations, ones we depend on to keep us safe.

While the focus of this Grist article is the effect that the REINS Act may have on the Environmental Protection Agency, this legislation may also allow Congress to slow regulations put forward by the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which are integral to the safety of American consumers. (Read our extensive discussions of FDA shortcomings in some of our recent blog posts, dealing with issues like its failure to adequately regulate birth control devices like the NuvaRing, its protection of generic drug makers, its role in the fungal meningitis outbreak of 2012-2013, and its lax regulation of products containing the known carcinogen bisphenol A.)

The president of the American Association for Justice, Burton LeBlanc, claims that this bill is an attempt to “replace a thorough regulatory process that is based on input from multiple industry, consumer, and safety experts with a ‘Congress knows best’ approach.” And this pro-civil justice organization is not the only group voicing concern about REINS; political blog The Hill reports the White House Office of Management and Budget says the bill “would reflect an unprecedented and unjustified power shift in Washington.”

Critics are concerned that this legislation would enable lawmakers with a relationship to special interest groups to effectively kill any regulation they deem harmful to a given business or industry. Watchdog groups are thus accusing members of Congress of placing the bottom line of corporate interests ahead of environmental and consumer safety.

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