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GOP takes aim at process of crafting regulations

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For months, Republican lawmakers have targeted specific regulations they want to repeal or block, all in the name of saving jobs. Next up: remaking the entire process for government rulemaking.

A handful of bills on Capitol Hill would add new layers of congressional involvement to the rulemaking process, in addition to dozens more criteria for agencies when they analyze a rule’s impact on the economy. The net effect, consumer groups say, is that the already slow process for implementing regulations would get even slower.

Supporters of the bills, which include a few Democrats, argue that government regulations are impeding businesses and that agencies need further checks on their work. Several Republican presidential candidates have framed their economic policy plans around rolling back regulations.

“The current regulatory system has become a barrier to economic growth and job creation,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said when he introduced the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2011, or RAA, in September along with Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Yet economists who have studied the impact of regulations have concluded that the overall effect on jobs is minimal. Only 0.3 percent of layoffs in 2010 were caused by government regulations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The RAA takes on a 65-year-old statute, the Administrative Procedure Act, that is the bedrock of how agencies implement regulations passed by Congress. Experts estimate there are at least 100 requirements that agencies have to fulfill; for instance, agencies have to consider the impact of a rule on small businesses and the environment. The RAA, which may see a vote Friday in the House, would add roughly 60 new requirements.

“The RAA would grind to a halt the rulemaking process at the core of implementing the nation’s public health, workplace safety, and environmental standards,” Jessica Randall of the nonprofit OMB Watch wrote in a study of the bill’s impact. “This bill will not improve the federal regulatory process; it will cripple it. Rules that somehow make it through the RAA’s process would tilt against the public interest and in favor of powerful special interests.”

According to the study by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, the RAA would add 21 to 39 months to the rulemaking process, which can already stretch into several years when businesses and agencies jostle over the details of implementation.

Another bill, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, or REINS, would add significantly more involvement from Congress at the tail end of rulemaking.

Currently, if Congress opposes a rule, it can invoke the Congressional Review Act to block it. The REINS Act, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) turns that around, requiring Congress to approve every rule before it goes into effect.

“If Congress is to impose regulations and laws on U.S. citizens, it is important that those citizens are made aware of how they come to be,” Paul said in a statement. “Cutting red tape and opening the regulatory process to scrutiny is an important step in holding government accountable to all Americans.”

Consumer advocates say the REINS Act is not about process but about business groups upset with specific rules that protect public safety and the environment.

A report this summer by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, said that of the 48 groups that reported lobbying on the act during the first half of 2011, 26 were from the energy industry. Many utility and coal companies have criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for regulations that they say will cost jobs.

“If you’re worried about a particular regulation, the solution is not to fundamentally undermine the regulatory process,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

The battle over regulations comes as policymakers search for ways to encourage economic growth.

Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf testified last week before the Senate Budget Committee about different policies Congress might adopt in an effort to lower the unemployment rate. He acknowledged that regulations can sometimes dampen business investment, but Elmendorf concluded that changing regulations would do little to help the country in the near term.

“In CBO’s judgment, the economic effects of the specific changes in regulatory policies . . . probably would be too small or would occur too slowly to significantly alter overall output or employment in the next two years,” Elmendorf said in his testimony.

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