WASHINGTON - Republicans in Congress opened an offensive this week against government regulations, a drive finding favor with polluting industries, small businesses and some Democrats who are especially fearful about the economy.
The GOP-run House, angry over government involvement in a Boeing Co. labor dispute, plans to take up legislation today that would prevent the National Labor Relations Board from taking strong action against companies that flout labor laws.
Next week, the House is scheduled to start holding votes at regular intervals through the fall aimed at delaying a series of pro-environment regulations, from stronger anti-pollution requirements for power plants to new curbs on farm pollution.
Meanwhile, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and 13 other Republicans introduced legislation this week labeled the "Regulatory Time-Out Act." It would impose a one-year freeze on significant new regulations with over $100 million in compliance costs.
"They're not in hyper speed, they're in ludicrous speed when you look at regulations coming out of this administration," Blunt asserted to reporters recently.
The GOP legislation is certain to encounter roadblocks in the Democratic-run Senate. But the anti-regulatory climate in Washington already is having an impact, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to cancel plans this month to tighten rules on ozone pollution. And President Barack Obama last week vowed additional steps to rid the government of regulatory underbrush.
The fight against rules is being waged by Republicans, but some Democrats are sounding similar themes that could resonate with businesses and voters in the battered economy.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., likely to face a tough re-election battle next year, said government needs to be mindful that businesses are struggling.
"With these forces against them, only the most critical regulations should be pursued. Now is not the time for unnecessary regulations that have the potential to further depress our economy," she said in a statement.
When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., laid out the schedule for attacking new regulations, he defined them as "job-destroying," an oft-repeated phrase in the Republicans' recent political playbook.
Complaints about government overreach are not new, and by some measurements, the burden imposed on businesses during Obama's administration isn't dramatically heavier than in the administration of President George W. Bush. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, an advocate of limited government, counted 408 significant rules in the first two years of Obama's administration compared with 338 in the last two years of Bush's.
But Obama critics note that enforcement of rules has been more robust and that many more rules are in the pipeline as a result of two broad pieces of legislation, the health care overhaul and the financial industry reform bill.
Last month, the White House released a plan to eliminate "redundancy and inconsistency" in regulations, estimating savings to businesses at $10 billion over the next five years.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised the initiative but warned that it would be undermined by pending new regulations — some targeted by the House.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said that when he meets with constituents, typically the second topic brought up after the economy deals with regulations.
"Job creators spend millions and millions of dollars to comply with these things knowing it's money they aren't able to recoup," he said.
"We're deadly serious about this," Luetkemeyer said of the House GOP plan. "We're not playing games on our side of the building."
The labor vote today stems from the National Labor Relations Board's actions after Boeing's decision to open its 787 Dreamliner production line this summer in right-to-work South Carolina. Boeing claims its decision was made for economic reasons. The NLRB contends the company was punishing unionized workers in Washington state and wants the work returned there.
Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, is among 16 House members targeted in a million-dollar radio and Web ad campaign by business groups leading up to the vote. The ads accuses "unaccountable bureaucrats" of overstepping their authority and urges support for the House effort to undercut the NLRB.
The GOP-drawn bills aim heavily at the EPA. Next week, the House plans to target two EPA efforts: a rule called maximum available control technology, which is designed to reduce mercury and other pollutants from power plant emissions by 2015; and the so-called cross state rule, requiring 27 states, including Missouri and Illinois, to remove additional sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants from the air.
Other EPA rules in the cross hairs include the government's effort to regulate coal ash and other wastes from coal-burning, a proposal that stems from the collapse of an impoundment in Tennessee in 2008.
EPA defenders and public health advocates argue that critics' simplistic narrative focused on cost does not factor in the benefits from new regulations. The mercury and cross-state rules alone could prevent as many as 25,300 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of lost workdays annually, they argue, citing EPA estimates.
Nor does the debate in Congress consider jobs created by regulations, they add. The EPA estimates that the mercury rule alone would create 40,000 jobs, 31,000 in construction and 9,000 in the electric utility sector.
John Walke, who directs the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the GOP effort "the most concerted and reckless assault on public health and environmental safeguards we have witnessed in Washington."
The Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank and Democratic-aligned group, argues for tempering the release of new rules. Michael Mandel, the group's chief economic strategist, dates the expansion of government rule-making to the aftermath of 9/11 in Bush's administration. Rather than back off, he said, the Obama White House expanded into new areas.
"While we're still in this downturn, I think it makes sense to delay or alter regulations in order to provide breathing room for the economy," he said.
"Unemployment has health consequences as well," he said, responding to worries of environmental advocates.
G. Tracy Mehan, former head of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources who later became a top water official in Bush's EPA, said anti-regulatory sentiments always have been present. But today, he said, they are fueled by "a terrible economy that colors everybody's attitude toward any additional cost, even if its legitimate."
He added: "At the end of the day, most Americans would support the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Is there any kind of national consensus for repealing these laws or making them dysfunctional? Of course not. Environmental values are deeply ingrained in the American character these days."