A Senate committee vote on Wednesday is a new high water mark for a long-sought-after regulatory reform proposal. Further progress, though, might be unlikely.
The U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the REINS Act (the acronym stands for "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny"), sending the bill to the Senate floor for the first time. While the REINS Act has cleared the House several times in recent years—most recently in January—this is the first time the proposal has been approved by a vote of any kind in the Senate.
Sponsored by Sen. Ran Paul (R-Kentucky), the REINS Act would require every new regulation that costs more than $100 million to be approved by Congress. As it is now, executive branch agencies can pass those rules unilaterally, and even though those major rules account for only 3 percent of annual regulations, they are the ones that cause the most headaches for individuals and businesses.
Passage of the REINS Act would also require Congress to review all existing regulations that surpass the $100 million threshold. Since there's no clear accounting of how many such rules exist, assessing the landscape would be a necessary step before reforms could be enacted.
"For too long, an ever-growing federal bureaucracy has piled regulations and red tape on the backs of the American people without any approval by Americans' elected representatives," Paul said in a statement Wednesday. "The REINS Act reasserts Congress' legislative authority and would continue the historic progress we have made this year to curb the damaging effects of overreaching regulations."
While the committee vote is a win for the legislation, another bill also approved by the same committee on Wednesday is a more likely vehicle for regulatory reforms this year. Clyde Wayne Crews, the vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank that favors regulatory reform, tells Reason that he doesn't expect a floor vote on Paul's bill this year—though he admits it's difficult to predict anything in Washington.
Still, regulatory reformers have hope in the form of the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would codify several executive branch mandates requiring cost/benefit analyses on new rules. It would also require executive agencies to do more after-the-fact reviews of the consequences of their regulations and would apply the same cost/benefit measures to things that aren't technically regulations but do much of the same thing, like when the FAA issues "guidance" on drone rules, for example.
The Regulatory Accountability Act does not go as far as the REINS Act, but "it helps pave the way for more substantial reforms in the future," says Crews.
What of President Donald Trump's promise to reshape the federal regulatory state—to bring about the "deconstruction of the regulatory state," as White House adviser Steve Bannon promised in March?
"It's not that," says Crews. "The administrative state will be just fine. It won't solve every problem, but it might allow our descendants to do so."
With Congress likely to spend the next several months on hearings concerned with the firing of James Comey and other hearings seeking to find his replacement as director of the FBI, the entire legislative agenda for 2017 has been disrupted. Health care and tax reform will likely be pushed off until the fall, and the federal budget still has to be passed too.
In that environment, getting the REINS Act to the floor of the Senate might be a bigger accomplishment than it initially seems, even if it moves no farther.