By Amit Narang, Public Citizen
This Congress has embodied Mick Mulvaney’s frank admission to Wall Street lobbyists that “pay to play” still is the name of the game on Capitol Hill, and the Republicans’ use of the Congressional Review Act (CRA) has played a big role.
Republican use of this once obscure law has been unprecedented, reckless, irresponsible and deeply damaging to public health and safety protections, consumer protections and our environment. It also has illustrated in no uncertain terms that Congress is protecting the profits of big business instead of protecting hardworking families.
This week, Democrats in the U.S. Senate will turn the tables by forcing a CRA vote to bring back net neutrality, which was repealed by President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission in December. Overturning the repeal of net neutrality is crucial to keeping the internet free and open, and preventing consumers and innovators from being at the mercy of the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Some have opined that this vote represents a Democratic endorsement of the CRA, but this is wishful thinking. It’s far more likely Democrats will repeal the CRA if given the chance rather than use it with reckless abandon as Republicans have.
If there is one clear takeaway from this week’s CRA vote, it’s that there’s a big difference between using the CRA to protect consumers and hold big businesses accountable, versus using it to give corporate interests handouts and special favors by striking down popular public protections. What Democrats are doing amounts to re-regulation.
The CRA gives Congress the ability to overturn recently finalized regulations through a fast-track process that bypasses all normal deliberation, including committee hearings, committee reports, Congressional Budget Office analysis and, most crucially, the filibuster in the Senate. The CRA simply requires a bare majority for a resolution to pass, and if signed by the president, becomes law. It is a dangerous tool if used without caution.
Republicans in Congress have proved it. They used the CRA to attack more than a dozen commonsense safeguards that were finalized late in the Obama administration, including rules that safeguard privacy on the internet, protect waters from toxic waste runoff due to coal mining, prevent companies with unsafe workplaces or that pay their workers unequally from receiving government contracts, ensure women’s access to preventative health services and limit access to firearms for the severely mentally ill.
Public Citizen’s research found a common theme across these CRA attacks: Each can be tied to discrete corporate and ideological interests that benefitted from deregulation.
The CRA vote on net neutrality sharpens the point. The vote will be to restore a key protection that is overwhelmingly popular with the public because it protects consumers’ online freedom and gives small businesses and startups a level playing field against larger competitors. Those who vote against the net neutrality CRA will do so at the behest of the huge telecoms like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T that oppose any effort to limit their ability to selectively slow down internet traffic.
The CRA vote also will expose false claims that the CRA is a neutral accountability tool rather than a partisan one. If net neutrality were to pass in the Senate, it is not clear whether it will get a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives unless Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) allows it. If Ryan refuses to hold a vote, it makes clear that anti-regulatory zealots in Congress support the CRA only when it can be used to pay back corporate and ideological interests, not when protecting consumers, workers and our environment.
No matter what happens, it will not change the inescapable fact that the CRA is a poorly drafted, dangerous law that is prone to abuse. Given the increasing radical and ideological nature of the war on regulation that Trump and Republicans in Congress are waging, it’s likely that they will continue to use the CRA to strike down public protections, while Democrats will use it to try to save them.
Repealing the CRA is the best long-term solution, but until that happens, no one should be surprised to see consumer advocates urging its use to defend regulatory protections against Trump administration rollbacks.