The political attention of the country is, unsurprisingly, caught up in the presidential campaign at the moment.    As much of the political press wonders if House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE will give Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE his full support as Republican nominee, the Speaker is trying to shift gears by touting his own policy agenda, under the soothing name “A Better Way.” His proposals would have serious implications for the public health, safety and environmental protections millions of Americans rely on. Specifically, the Speaker continues to advocate for legislation that would give Congress the authority to approve—or effectively veto—all major public protections before they go into effect.  He’s been particularly vocal about his support for the “Regulations of the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” Act, or REINS Act.  The idea—that Congress needs additional authority over the executive branch’s rulemaking—has been swirling around on Capitol Hill for some time now, and I have written about it before, including in the journal Science

Let’s be frank: the REINS Act and similar bills are colossally bad ideas. They would undermine science-based decision-making in favor of purely political judgments.  Administrative agencies must adhere to a clear process: notifying the public that a rule will be drafted, allowing public comment, proposing the rule, allowing more public comment, and then finalizing the rule with an explanation of how the public comments were addressed.  Adherence to any and all of these steps, as well as the final decisions themselves, can be challenged in court, and often are.  So there is full accountability for each and every decision. No agency regulates on a whim.  

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It’s important to note, and it seems that certain lawmakers have forgotten, that agencies can only propose rules pursuant to statutory authority granted by Congress. These safeguards must be designed to meet specific goals set by Congress, such as cleaner air (the Clean Air Act), fishable and swimmable waters (the Clean Water Act), and protecting species at risk of extinction (the Endangered Species Act), to name a few.   The standards must be justified by scientific analysis that diagnoses the problem and analyzes possible solutions.   And the authority to regulate as well as the specific approach taken can also be challenged in court, and usually is. 

So what is wrong with the REINS Act?  A glaring problem is that, unlike rules approved by agencies, the public would have little to no input into Congress’ decisions.  The decisions would not be subjected to public comment. Congress would not have to justify the scientific basis of its decisions. There would be no requirement for Congress to meet the goals of the underlying law, and there would be no clear opportunity to challenge the decision in court.  In fact, ironically, it is likely that only the agency itself could be sued—for not doing the job that Congress didn’t allow it to do.

The REINS Act and similar proposals would mandate that a majority in both chambers affirmatively approve a rule, in a short timeframe, for the rule to be enacted.  In other words, most regulations would have no hope of being enacted. That is the real intent of the proposal: Stop regulating.

Stop trying to reduce air pollution, toxic chemical spills, or hazardous materials in homes and schools.  Stop trying to clean up water for drinking and recreation.  Stop trying to protect children from dangerous products or unsafe food.  Stop trying to protect the environment for everyone to enjoy.  

Yes, regulations can be controversial – because they mean that businesses or individuals can’t do whatever they want, but instead have to consider the health and safety of others.  It may cost someone money to clean up their pollution instead of dumping it on the public and imposing the costs on them.  Or they may mean someone can’t make as much money as they’d like because their unrestricted activities would harm public resources that we all should be able to enjoy.  But regulations are about enforcing democratically-enacted laws and protecting the public’s interest.  There are endless examples of public health and safety, as well as the environment, being undermined for private gain, and it would be all too easy under the REINS Act for a corporation or trade group to overrule clear scientific evidence, and derail a rule for political or self-interested reasons.

So let’s keep science and the public interest in our government.  Don’t be fooled by the REINS Act.  The only thing it reins in is the public good. 


Ken Kimmell is the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.