A Pilgrim’s Pride contract chicken farm full of three-week-old chicks just outside the city limits of Pittsburg, Texas. The Consumer Federation of America warned last week that long-standing food safety regulations, such as those requiring companies to prevent contamination of meat and poultry products with deadly foodborne pathogens, will be threatened by the proposed Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA). Photo: LM Otero/AP
WASHINGTON — Consumer rights, environmental, public health and watchdog groups are expressing significant concern over a bill passed by the House of Representatives last week aimed at cutting down on “costly” federal regulation.
Supporters of the proposal, known as the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA), view it as a key tool in strengthening the voices of those who say they are negatively impacted by burdensome regulation. The bill was passed Jan. 13 on a mostly party-line vote, though it did receive the support of eight Democrats.
“This bill will streamline and bring transparency to the regulatory process, ensuring that our farmers, ranchers and small businesses are not regulated out of business,” Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said last week in a statement.
“Increasing transparency and accountability will give those who will actually feel the impact of proposed regulations, rather than Washington bureaucrats, a larger voice in the process.”
Criticism of federal regulation has traditionally revolved around analysis of economic impact, and that remains a central priority for those supporting the RAA. According to the bill’s sponsors, “federal regulatory burden” in 2013 added up to some $15,000 per household.
The RAA would certainly make new public interest regulation significantly harder to put into place. In making changes to nearly 70-year-old regulatory processes and requirements, the bill could also weaken many of the most high-profile public safety laws currently in place, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Consumer Product Safety Act (others dispute whether the bill’s reach would extend to current regulation).
“We’ve calculated the bill would add 74 additional requirements in terms of procedure and analysis that federal agencies would have to conduct before being able to finalize and enforce new regulations,” Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate with Public Citizen, a consumer rights group, told MintPress News.
“The impacts would really span the spectrum, in terms of health, the workplace, food safety, consumer products like children’s toys, consumer financial products, even ‘net neutrality.’”
Several other groups are expressing similar concerns in the aftermath of the House of Representatives’ approval of the RAA bill last week. These groups include the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Consumer Federation of America, among others. Detailed analysis of these 74 requirements, along with related progressive concerns, is available here.
“Had it been in effect, for example, the RAA would have severely hampered the implementation of essential and long-standing food safety regulations, such as those requiring companies to prevent contamination of meat and poultry products with deadly foodborne pathogens,” the Consumer Federation of America warned last week in a letter to lawmakers.
“Further, had the RAA been in effect the necessary child safety protections required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 … may have never been implemented.”
Many of these public safety advances are now well integrated into U.S. society, such that large swathes of the public would likely decline to roll back these protections. In polling results released in October by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, which includes Public Citizen, nearly nine in 10 voters of all political backgrounds supported strengthened enforcement of existing regulation.
That support remained even at more granular levels. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, for instance, expressed favorable views of several prominent regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission. Such levels of support, of course, far surpass the single-digit approval ratings often given to the U.S. Congress.
Mandated goose chase
The RAA would update the Administrative Procedures Act, a nearly seven-decade-old set of esoteric but critical rules governing the federal government’s internal mechanisms.
For instance, it would increase requirements impelling regulators to factor in a proposed rule’s economic cost in comparison to the social benefits it would ensure. They would also be required to take into account indirect costs, though how that is defined remains vague in the bill’s current wording.
“This is really about sending agencies on a goose chase, in that it is unclear the level to which regulators are supposed to analyze indirect effects – to the third, fourth, fifth degree? The bill doesn’t specify any outer boundary,” Public Citizen’s Narang said.
“Such a requirement would really try to make the regulatory process as dysfunctional, inefficient and redundant as possible, on top of a process that’s already far from efficient. Under the status quo, all federal agencies routinely miss deadlines.”
Currently, it takes the federal regulatory system an average of four to six years to write new rules, analysts say.
The cost-benefit requirement would extend not only to formal regulation but also to the reams of official “guidance” that federal and independent agencies put out on a regular basis. Currently, this is not the case.
“The Centers for Disease Control, for instance, recently put out guidance to hospitals around Ebola-related concerns. Under this legislation, however, they would have had to go through an extensive cost-benefit analysis to do so, requiring additional months, if not more,” Ronald White, the director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, a watchdog group, told MintPress.
“It’s also important to note that a lot of the legislation that protects public health and safety currently doesn’t allow the use of a regulation’s cost as the basis for setting standards. Those factors come into play only once the rule passes a certain level to actually protect health. So this is backdoor, stealth attempt at undercutting the vast number of public health protections that have been established for decades.”
Once the cost-benefit analysis on new rules is completed, the RAA would then require that regulators move forward on the least-costly option. Yet critics say that past experience has repeatedly found that regulations that are least costly to industry often end up being the most ineffective – and hence, the most costly to the public.
Long-term health problems, environmental pollution or lax financial oversight are just a few of the examples of costs, often brought about by ineffective regulation, that companies are able to “externalize” but for which taxpayers are eventually forced to pay.
The 2007-08 crash on Wall Street and subsequent recession are now seen to constitute a classic example of the danger of inadequate regulation. Yet even as regulators continue to work to implement legislation passed in response to the Wall Street fiasco, the RAA would likely stymie that process.
A “powerful tool”
The new requirements would also be judicially reviewable, and would lower the bar for the filing of such lawsuits. This means that any entity that didn’t agree with a new rule – an affected company or industry, for instance – would be able to sue to block the regulation on the grounds that it didn’t take into account some additional indirect cost.
Much of the country’s largest manufacturers, trade associations and business coalitions are heavily supporting the RAA, promoting it as an update to an outdated and onerous regulatory system that has a negative impact the ability of industry to create jobs.
“Today’s regulatory landscape is vastly different from what it was seven decades ago. There has been an unprecedented increase in economically significant rules in recent years, some of which are slowing economic growth and inhibiting job creation,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated last week in a letter to lawmakers.
“[The RAA] would be a powerful tool to ensure that the most costly and complex new rules are well-designed and tailored to accomplish their objectives without causing collateral damage to our nation’s economy.”
Also last week, more than 150 other national and state-level trade and industry associations joined the Chamber in urging members of Congress to support the RAA. Many of these same supporters have been pushing for such measures for years, and versions of the RAA itself have been introduced in each of the two past congressional sessions.
The fact that the bill is one of the first to be introduced in the new Republican-controlled Congress is, of course, as much symbolic as it is substantive. President Obama has already threatened to veto the RAA if it comes to his desk, citing many of the same concerns that are being voiced by civil society critics. (The Senate has not yet taken up the issue, though observers expect a companion bill to be introduced any day.)
Yet with the federal regulatory regime now constituting a key target for the Republican leadership in the coming two years, many see the re-introduction of the RAA as an opening salvo, meant to send a political message to supporters and critics alike.
“We’re expecting an onslaught of anti-regulatory legislation that will be coming out of Congress,” the Center for Effective Government’s White said. “Whether the target is environmental, health-related or new financial protections, we’ll likely be seeing a broad attempt to undercut decades of established public protections.”