Regulatory scrutiny must be part of a deal

We all know how this is going to end.

A deal will be made. Both sides will claim victory. Their bases will claim they sold out. And the government will reopen.

It is often the side deals in these negotiations that end up making the most lasting impact. The sequester, for instance, was a side deal — a throw-in by a president who never expected it to come to pass. And, in this case, the side deal tradition gives Republicans an opportunity.

That opportunity is the REINS Act — Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny. It passed the House earlier this year with bipartisan support, only to be ignored by the Senate. It would require Congress to vote on any new regulation that has an economic impact of more than $100 million per year.

That would have forced Congress to vote on 46 regulations in 2012 and 34 so far this year. Some of the votes would have been controversial, such as the EPA’s $9.6 billion per year power-plant emissions rule.

This bill, if passed, would begin to restore the traditional balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. David Roberts, of the left-leaning website Grist, understands this — and does not like it.

“Meanwhile, the bill really would fundamentally reshape the way the federal government works in such a way as to make regulation, when possible at all, weak, slow and corrupt. It would radically and deliberately degrade government’s ability to act in response to pollution, corruption or financial crisis.”

Mr. Roberts‘ argument is a little overblown, to say the least. This legislation is more a beginning to regulatory reform than an ending. The 46 rules costing more than $100 million per year that would have qualified for a REINS Act vote in 2012 amount to a little more than 1 percent of the 3,708 total regulations agencies issued that year.

As for corruption, Mr. Roberts‘ case to oppose the bill actually works against him. He argues, with Congress voting on these measures, lobbyists and others would try to influence the outcome.

Well, guess what — lobbyists and a variety of other interested parties already influence regulatory outcomes. Sugar interests weigh in on trade regulations. Equipment makers want a say in medical regulations. The difference is, with this bill, they would have to lobby members of Congress, which is easier to track and affords voters the opportunity to reject politicians they think may have been “bought.”

If Mr. Roberts wants to neutralize lobbying, publicly recorded votes provide a lot more transparency than the current agency regulatory process.

It is true members of Congress rarely have the expertise of career agency specialists in a given issue area. But if a rule is significant enough to have $100 million of economic impact, they can find advisers who do have that expertise.

Mr. Roberts further argues that agencies are only carrying out regulatory authority granted by Congress. This may be true on paper, but not in practice. For instance, the president has signed just 15 bills into law this year — on pace for a near all-time low — but three of the four most active years for regulations in American history have come during the Obama administration.

Moreover, agencies regularly promulgate regulations that go far beyond the intent of Congress. This legislation would force Congress to keep up with the laws it writes and the impact they have on the American people.

That impact is huge and continues to grow. For the first time in history, regulatory compliance costs — at $1.8 trillion and rising, according to “Ten Thousand Commandments,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s annual report on regulations — equaled more than half of all federal spending.