Are they capable of governing?  Through with their tantrums?  Ready to move beyond “message bills” and paybacks to donors?  These are the questions hanging over the Republican Party as it assumes control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 2007.  So it was revealing when House Republicans made a top priority of the Regulatory Accountability Act, a bill designed to make it nearly impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Consumer Protection Financial Board (CFPB), and other agencies to carry out their statutory missions of safeguarding the public.  The bill is a massive overreach, and it only exacerbates concerns about whether the GOP is ready for prime time.  

Doubts about Republicans’ seriousness about actually governing are well deserved.  Over the last four years, Republican congressional leaders have dedicated themselves to reducing Congress and several targeted Executive Branch agencies to little more than a dysfunctional mess.  One crisis after another has punctuated this period, as Republicans have sought to leverage their ability to disrupt the functioning of government—inadequate funding, riders on appropriations bills, the debt ceiling, and more—to achieve ideological goals.

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The country faces numerous pressing problems that cry out for legislative solutions, but none have been forthcoming thanks to Republican intransigence.  As the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure grows more worrisome, Republicans have failed to produce a comprehensive highway bill.  Everyone agrees that federal immigration policy is in desperate need of modernization, yet Republicans can’t agree on a viable reform plan.  Congress nearly passed an effective energy efficiency bill, but Republicans managed to scuttle it at the last minute. The latest mess—the recall of 60 million cars—can be traced to congressional defunding of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And that brings us back to the Regulatory Accountability Act.  The bill is a blatant effort to tie the executive branch in knots, slowing progress on pressing public health problems to a crawl and thwarting the executive branch’s ability to carry out one of its core functions—namely, implementation of the law through regulations and guidance.

The bill would force agencies to satisfy as many as 74 new procedural requirements before issuing new safeguards.  It already takes agencies up to eight years to complete the rulemaking process; with the Regulatory Accountability Act, that process could extend to over 10 years, potentially stretching across three different presidential administrations.  The onerousness of these requirements is such that any rule that does emerge from the procedural gauntlet is unlikely to survive the legal challenges that disgruntled corporate interests are sure to bring.

Among the bill’s most troubling provisions are those that would force agencies to conduct comprehensive economic analyses for an indeterminate number of potential regulatory “alternatives,” including a full accounting of each alternatives’ “indirect” costs and benefits—concepts the bill fails to define.  Using these analyses, the agency must then select the “least costly” alternative, with limited exceptions.  Nearly identical provisions in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) rendered that law a dismal failure, a terrible shame because it is the law that compels testing of potentially toxic chemicals.  Indeed, because these requirements are seen as impossible to satisfy, the EPA has not attempted a meaningful rulemaking under TSCA in over 20 years. Remember the chemical spill into drinking water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia?  Some people are still on bottled water there, and we still have no clue about what the spill may have done to their health because the chemical was never tested.

Under the bill, this level of dysfunction would infect every federal regulatory program, from nuclear safety to veterans’ benefits, with predictably catastrophic results.  It would mean more air and water pollution, more harmful consumer products and food on stores’ shelves, more dangerous workplaces, and more financial institutions recklessly gambling away families’ hard-earned savings—all matters that previous congresses sought to address with forward-looking statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, the Food Safety Modernization Act, and the Dodd-Frank Act.

If that weren’t enough to discourage Republicans from wasting scarce legislative time on this misguided bill, then surely President Obama’s promise to veto it should have been.  Nevertheless, pursued it they have, every single House Republican lined up to vote in support.

The GOP still has time to demonstrate that it is ready to behave like a party of adults.  But it’s not off to a promising start.

Steinzor, of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and the author of "Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction," published by Cambridge University Press. Goodwin is a senior policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform.