By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Tomorrow, CPR Member Scholar Rena Steinzor is scheduled to appear before the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law of the House Judiciary Committee to testify at a hearing focused on the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA is a controversial law that has been aggressively used this past year by the majority in Congress and the Trump administration to repeal 14 regulatory safeguards that would have protected consumers, workers, and our environment. In her testimony, Steinzor makes the case for repealing the CRA, arguing that it is an ineffective tool for overseeing the executive branch and its recent abuses have served only to further erode public esteem for Congress as a democratic institution.
Steinzor’s testimony summarizes the damage that Congress has done to its own reputation through its misguided abuse of the CRA in the following stark terms:
I agree that the 115th Congress demonstrated rapid decision-making by killing 14 rules in a period of just a few weeks. But that rapid-fire spate of activity attracted more negative publicity than regulatory issues have achieved in many years. The story line of the coverage in most media outlets was that, at the behest of special interest lobbyists, especially those representing the profitable oil and gas and financial services sectors, Congress killed rules that seem to make a lot of sense. The impression left was that Congress is controlled by money, not rational, well-researched debate on the issues.
Rather than resorting to legislative gimmicks like the CRA, Steinzor explains that Congress can both improve its oversight capabilities and begin the process of restoring its reputation by returning to “regular order.” As she puts it:
But as many knowledgeable commentators—most recently, Senator John McCain—have pointed out on a bipartisan basis, Congress was, has been, and will be great again only when it returns to the “regular order,” a phrase connoting the use of all the tried and true mechanisms created over two centuries, from the drafting and introduction of bills, their referral to committees and subcommittees, debates within those small groups of expert members, negotiation, mark-up, reconciliation of the different bills reported out by all the committees with jurisdiction, more negotiation, debate on the floor, approval, referral to a conference committee, more negotiation, and enactment. Congressional gridlock, partisan polarization, shamefully short legislative work weeks, ceaseless fundraising, outlandishly expensive elections, and obeisance to business groups have driven many qualified legislators off the Hill and accomplished nothing less than the ruination of this noble institution’s reputation.
Her testimony also offers a brief elegy for the regulatory safeguards that were senselessly repealed through the CRA and the public benefits they would have provided, which now may never be realized. These measures include the Department of the Interior’s rule to limit the sheering of mountaintops by coal companies and dumping the resulting debris in streams that serve as a drinking water source for numerous Appalachian communities, and the Federal Communications Commission’s rule to protect the privacy of Internet users.
The putative topic of the hearing is whether agencies are adequately complying with their responsibilities under the CRA, including the duty to report their final rules and guidance documents to Congress and the Government Accountability Office. As Steinzor explains, claims that agencies are disregarding these duties are grossly overblown. She cites leading research showing that agency non-compliance is extremely rare, and this is despite the onerous obstacles agencies must overcome in meeting the CRA’s requirements.
To learn more about the Congressional Review Act and Congress’s recent abusive misuse of the law, see here.