Reining in the Executive Branch

Reining in the Executive Branch

Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Rep. Todd Young (R., Ind.) introduced the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2015, or REINS Act. The REINS Act, first introduced in October 2009 by a different pair of politicians, passed the House in both of the last two Congresses -- but each time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) failed to schedule a hearing. Today, however, both chambers are Republican-controlled.

The REINS Act would require a joint resolution (i.e., one passed by both houses of Congress) before "major" new federal regulations -- those costing $100 million or one million hours of paperwork -- could take effect. It attempts to recapture the legislative power that Congress has delegated to executive-branch agencies over the past several decades.

According to work by the American Action Forum (AAF), the REINS Act could save more than $27 billion in annual regulatory costs and 11.5 million in paperwork burden hours. Over the period 2005-2014, federal regulators issued 755 major rules, with Congress reviewing no more than a miniscule number of them. Under the act, Congress would not stop all major rules, or even the overwhelming majority, but as AAF suggests, "perhaps five to ten a year could receive significant debate." At the very least, this act will keep federal agencies on notice.

The EPA's proposed power-plant regulations are one example of a major rule that deserves debate by elected officials. This rule, to be finalized in June 2015, is designed to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by 17 percent (relative to their 2005 levels) by 2020, and 30 percent by 2030. This rule will force the retirement of coal-fired plants across the country.

Yet, according to the EPA, U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions declined 10 percent between 2005 and 2012, due in large part to increased use of natural gas and lowered national energy consumption. Without the rule, the U.S. is already more than halfway toward its goal of 17 percent by 2020 -- and that was accomplished voluntarily.

Environmental regulation can also restrict or deter market-driven innovations that can benefit society. The absence of this EPA rule might allow the power industry to make additional investments in innovative, productivity-enhancing technology, and pass on the savings to consumers. In contrast, research undertaken by the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation found that industry compliance with the EPA rule would cost a family of four approximately $1,200 per year, along with more than 600,000 jobs lost by 2023.

The EPA's power-plant rule, then, demonstrates what the REINS Act could accomplish: Under the act, Congress would debate the costs and benefits of the policy -- and would very likely refuse to approve it.

Thomas A. Hemphill is an associate professor of strategy, innovation, and public policy in the School of Management, University of Michigan-Flint, and a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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