Pushing back against anti-regulatory forces, safety and environmental protections long overdue

Finally!  After far too much hullabaloo about the cost of regulations, there was a U.S. Senate hearing today on why public health regulations are important, and how delays by Congress and the Administration have serious negative consequences for people’s lives.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called the hearing entitled “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis,” the first one conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s newly created Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action.  The witnesses included a parent-turned advocate for automobile safety, AFL-CIO director of safety and health Peg Seminario, and law professor Rena Steinzor of the Center for Progressive Reform.

Steinzor kicked off her testimony with short litany of regulatory successes:

 “One does not need to look far to see how essential regulations are.  Just ask anyone whose life was saved by a seat belt, whose children escaped brain damage because the EPA took lead out of gas, who turns on the faucet knowing the water will be clean, who takes drugs for chronic illness confident the medicine will make them better, who avoided have their hand mangled in machinery on the job because the emergency switch was there to cut off the motor, who has taken their kids to a heritage national park to see a bald eagle that was saved from the brink of extinction—-the list goes on and on.”

She went on to skewer industry lobbyists for the attacks on EPA’s efforts to regulate green house gas emissions, air quality standards, coal ash, stormwater runoff, PBDE’s and other chemicals.  Steinzor’s testimony is punctuated throughout with powerful prose, such as:

  • [Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson] “did not take a trip to the basement of the building where the agency is housed and get drunk on her own whiskey, writing down her best fantasies for torturing industry.  Rather, she did her best–at long last–to satisfy congressional mandates instructing her agency to impose more stringent controls on power plants, automobile fuel, boilers, etc.”
  • “The truth is that these rules, and the civil servants who write them, do not sweep industry’s hard-earned money into a pile and set it on fire for no good reason.  The regulations impose costs, but they also deliver tremendous benefits.  Ignoring those benefits has become standard practice in the House of Representatives…”
  • “Self-rightous crusaders against regulators have become fond of railing against the “costs” that come with regulatory decision-making, but they conveniently ignore the most critical questions: Costs for whom?  Industry or the public that suffers from industry’s polluting activities?  By ignoring this question, opponents of regulation are free to continue pretending that if we dismantled the regulatory system, we would suffer no negative consequences and instead reap a windfall in saved money.”

The AFL-CIO’s Peg Seminario used her 36 years of experience on worker health and safety policy to describe the rulemaking process today compared to OSHA’s early years.  The agency used to promulgate rules from start to finish in one to three years.  This includes its landmark rules on asbestos, cotton dust, vinyl chloride and lead.  As industry opposition to regulations has increased, Congress and administrations have responded by placing more requirements on OSHA for analyses, analyses and more analyses.  Seminario noted, over the 30 years of piling on, Congress has not examined whether these requirements:

“have added any worthwhile benefit to improving regulations or have simply served to delay and thwart the issuance of rules.  …If requirements are found to be of minimal or no value for the burden they impose, they should be eliminated or reduced.”

Congress’ vocal opponents of regulations are terribly fond of cost-benefit analyses, look-back reviews of, and sunset clauses on  regulations.  Maybe they should get a taste of their own medicine.

Seminario also didn’t mince words about the Executive Branch’s role in regulatory dysfunction, particularly when it comes to worker health and safety protections.  She describes the interference of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and its role in significant delay in OSHA’s proposed and final rules.   This includes a draft proposed rule on respirable silica which has been “under review” at OIRA for 2 1/2 years.   Seminario explains:

“We had hoped that with the Obama Administration the OIRA review process would improve, and the authority for developing and issuing rules would be returned to the agencies where it belongs.  Sadly, that has not been the case.”

She adds:

“…the OIRA review process is the worst that I have seen under any administration.”

That’s quite a statement coming from the AFL-CIO.

Both Seminario and Steinzor describe OIRA’s blatant failure to comply with EO 12866, which guides the Administration’s interagency review process.   Notably, OIRA blows off deadlines, meddles in aspects of rules outside its authority, and refuses to follow the EO’s transparency mandates.  Topics that are familiar to regular readers of TPH.

Seminario also touches on the cockamamy bills introduced in Congress to “reform” the regulatory process, such as the “Regulation from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” (REINS Act) (S.15, H.R. 367)  If passed, it would require both houses of Congress to approve every major rule within a 70 day time period, otherwise the rule would be null and void.   Let’s face it, the co-sponsors aren’t interested in reviewing rules and making policy.  They want to protect their powerful backers by immobilizing regulatory agencies.

I applaud Senator Blumenthal for holding the first hearing for this new oversight committee on the issue of regulatory paralysis.  I hope the Obama Administration is listening and takes advantage of its three remaining years to issue long-delayed public health protections.  I’ve been holding my breath for five years and would like to do so soon.

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