WASHINGTON – Republicans efforts to rescind a myriad of Obama-era rules ended with one failure but 14 regulations eliminated from the books.
Since Republicans took the reins of government in Washington this year, they used a once-obscure law to rollback regulations issued by the Obama administration. They voted to overturn rules ranging from one that limited the ability of the mentally ill to buy firearms to another forcing oil companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments.
The law, the Congressional Review Act, had been used successfully only once before.
“Getting this done hasn’t always been easy, and we’ve met a lot of obstruction along the way,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “And while we can’t simply turn back time or completely erase the negative impact that Obama regulations have had already, the CRA has allowed us to stop a number of them in their tracks.”
Facing a Thursday deadline to use the procedure, the effort ended on a sour note for industry. Republicans came up one vote short in the Senate Wednesday to roll back a regulation forcing oil and gas companies to curb methane leaks.
About 35 congressional review act resolutions were introduced this year, but most failed to win a vote in one or the other chamber. However, lawmakers exceeded analysts expectations of how many CRA votes could take place, and many of the regulations Congress didn’t vote on may be repealed by the Trump administration in the end. That’s just a lengthier process and open to legal challenge.
“I think they’ve done some damage,” said Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I welcome the fact that CRAs are now behind us.”
The review act, which sets expedited congressional procedures to review a regulation including, requires agencies to submit major rules to Congress, and then gives lawmakers up to 60 congressional working days to vote overturn them. The act doesn’t require a filibuster-proof 60-vote margin in the Senate during that 60-day period. A “reset” period at the beginning of a new presidency lets lawmakers torpedo the previous president’s most recent rules. The reset period expires Thursday.
Until Trump was elected, the Congressional Review Act had only been used successfully once before. In 2001 Congress voted to overturn a Labor Department ergonomics rule issued by the Clinton administration. President Barack Obama vetoed the CRA measures that passed the Republican-led Congress during his tenure.
But Trump and Republicans in Congress united in their criticisms of Obama’s health, safety and environmental rules, and seized on the CRA as the surest route to repeal them.
Other major regulations rescinded this year include one that required federal contractors to disclose labor law and employment violations when bidding on a new or renewed contract. The rule was opposed by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Public Services Council, which has representatives of companies such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems PLC on its board of directors.
The CRA was also successfully used to rescind a federal rule forcing Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and other overseas oil producers to disclose their payments to foreign governments. The rollback was seen as a victory for U.S. oil majors that spent years trying to de-fang the Securities and Exchange Commission effort, a part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation. Oil lobbyists argued it gives global rivals a competitive edge.
But others failed to get a vote, amid competing priorities and some controversy. Others not acted upon include a measure backed by Republican Ted Cruz that would roll back Energy Department rules used to set energy efficiency standards for compressors and one to block Treasury Department rules to close tax-inversion loopholes. The methane rule that failed Wednesday was estimated to cost oil drillers hundreds of millions of dollars a year to comply, but environmental groups argue it mandated common-sense procedures to cut venting and flaring of the greenhouse gas.
“From their perspective it was incredibly successful,” said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum, a Washington research group that favors smaller government. But “these had targeted impacts to a few industries.”
According to the group, the 14 CRAs are projected to save $3.7 billion in total regulatory costs and eliminate 4.2 million hours of paperwork.
“It’s time for this sad chapter to end,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate for the watch-dog group Public Citizen. “The CRA gave Congress and President Trump a shortcut to attack and kill common-sense regulations at corporate special interests’ behest.”
Still, regulatory roll backs continue, as Trump is already moving to act without Congress. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a delay for safety regulations put in place after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. There was a proposal in Congress to cancel that rule but it never received a vote. Trump ordered all of the government’s departments to consider what rules can be axed, and set a mandate that two rules must be scrapped for each one new one issued.
The failure on the final rule – on regulations governing methane emissions – was a surprise defeat for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after Arizona Sen. John McCain broke with most Republicans and voted no. The vote failed 49-51 on Wednesday.
Within hours, the Interior Department announced it was considering reworking or rescinding the methane rule on its own. Those changes will take time – and will face inevitable challenges in court – but the net effect could be the same.
“Interior is quite likely to significantly change it, albeit through a rulemaking process that will take time,” James Rubin, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, said in an email. “The current rule lives for another day, but its future is not bright.”