Launching what one group called "a coming massive attack on federal protections," the U.S. House on Wednesday night passed the GOP-backed Midnight Rule Relief Act—making it easier for Congress to overturn Obama-era regulations—and appeared poised to follow that vote with passage on Thursday of another bill aimed at dismantling key health and safety laws.
Both measures were decried by environmentalists, consumer rights and public health advocates, and labor groups, who say they hand power over to corporations at the American public's expense.
"This first gambit by the House is a dramatic sign of what's to come: a radical effort to strip away existing public protections and shut down future rulemaking by agencies that exist to serve Americans."
—Scott Slesinger, Natural Resources Defense Council
"These dangerous pieces of legislation are one of the most egregious displays of political kowtowing to big polluter industries ever seen—and when considering previous efforts by many House Republicans over the years to kiss the ring of fossil fuel interests, that's really saying something," said Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce ahead of Wednesday's vote.
"These extreme bills would empower those politicians who spend every waking hour pushing the agenda of the fossil fuel industry to be able to derail any and all protections meant to protect public health and the environment," Pierce added.
The Midnight Rules Act would let Congress repeal, in one single package, rules finalized in the last 60 legislative days of the Obama administration. Proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the bill passed the house 238-184 (roll call here).
The Congressional Research Service estimates that rules submitted on or after June 13 will be subject to undoing. According to the Associated Press, "GOP leaders said their top regulatory targets will be [President Barack] Obama's rules to reduce methane emissions and lessen the environmental impact of coal mining on nearby streams." The Senate will soon consider companion legislation, though Reuters notes it could face a harder time in that chamber.
"This first gambit by the House is a dramatic sign of what's to come: a radical effort to strip away existing public protections and shut down future rulemaking by agencies that exist to serve Americans," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), after the vote. "The Senate and the public should reject this move to cripple key health, environmental, safety, consumer, and financial safeguards—just as the American people forced a swift retreat on ethics revisions the day Congress convened."
And the emboldened Republican-led Congress isn't done yet. On Thursday, the House is expected to take up the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would require any major rule to be approved by both houses of Congress within a limited period of time in order to take effect.
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Supported by right-wing advocacy groups and think tanks, the bill "threatens the integrity of the federal regulatory process and foolishly injects politics into a process that should be rooted in science," as Yogin Kothari of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote this week. Opponents say it would lead to more gridlock on Capitol Hill while inviting corporate lobbyists to "descend on Congress with even greater fervor than is currently the case."
President-elect Donald Trump has said he would sign the measure if it reaches his desk.
In a letter (pdf) to lawmakers on Wednesday, Americans for Financial Reform urged a vote against what it described as "a transparent effort to sabotage the ability of government to stand up for the public and against big banks":
The crisis of 2008 demonstrated that a failure to properly regulate Wall Street can result in trillions of dollars of economic damages and the loss of millions of jobs. The continuing series of scandals since that time, ranging from manipulation of markets to consumer fraud at Wells Fargo, further demonstrates the need for strong rules governing the financial system.
If the REINS Act passes, significant rules governing the financial sector will not go into effect unless both Houses of Congress vote again to approve each individual rule and the President once again approves the rule—even though the laws authorizing these rules have already been passed by Congress and the President. Administrative rules are necessary to give laws actual effect. This massive presumption against actually putting rules in place will be an enormous barrier to agency actions that protect the public from irresponsible or exploitative behavior by financial institutions.
[...] No one who believes in protecting the public from the effects of dangerous and irresponsible corporate misbehavior should vote for this bill. We urge you to oppose it.
Meanwhile, the Midnight Rules and REINS acts are merely a taste of the deregulatory bonanza in store as Republicans take control of the government, critics say, with Kothari describing them as "just the first in an avalanche of bills that will be used to gut our science-based public protections."
And he warns against complacency: "These wonky bills aren't improving the federal government," Kothari reminded readers. "They are an attack on our daily lives."