The 10 most controversial regs of 2013

The debate over federal regulation exploded in 2013, as President Obama leaned on his regulatory authority to pursue key policy goals in lieu of congressional action.

Republicans responded by making their push against Obama’s “job killing” regulations one of their most visible causes.

The two sides clashed over scores of federal regulations, including new rules governing healthcare, financial reform, and the environment. The administration also took heat from the political left over decisions to pull back or water down key regulations meant to protect the public.

Here’s a look at ten of the year's most important – and controversial – regulations:

Feds finalize Volcker Rule

A cornerstone of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, the Volcker Rule was the subject of fierce debate throughout 2013 as five regulatory agencies haggled details of new requirements barring banks from speculative trading. 

The final product, unveiled in mid-December, was decidedly tougher than originally proposed, thanks to the influence of a handful of top regulators who argued stronger restrictions are needed to prevent a repeat of the 2008 economic crisis.

The language prompted a backlash from industry groups who said it would stunt economic growth and punish small banks that had no part in causing the Great Recession. Litigation is reportedly in the works, setting the stage for a legal fight in 2014.

EPA issues greenhouse gas limits

The centerpiece of Obama’s agenda on climate change involves two major rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country.

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled draft regulations that called for strict limits on coal and gas-fired plants.

Critics instantly pounced, calling the proposed rules part of the administration’s “war on coal.” Their passions were further inflamed when the EPA announced a nationwide “listening tour” to hear concerns about the rule but skipped major coal states like West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

The rules for new plants are set to be followed up by regulations for existing power facilities in 2014.

White House delays employer mandate

The Obama administration dropped a major bombshell in July, when it announced a decision to relent on a key provision of the president’s signature health law.

Republicans opposed the employer mandate, which would impose penalties on employers that don’t provide insurance to their workers. But that didn’t stop them from blasting the administration for delaying the provision for a year.  Moving the regulation’s effective date to January of 2015 – after the 2014 midterms – amounted to picking and choosing which parts of the law to follow, critics said.

Controversy over the employer mandate is a far cry from being over, as the measure is central to ObamaCare and is unlikely to get any more popular in conservative circles next year.

Ethanol gets the shaft

The EPA dealt a major blow to the ethanol industry this fall, when it proposed to dramatically cut back the amount of the biofuel that refiners are required to mix with gasoline.

The agency issues yearly mandates for gas companies to mix renewable fuels like ethanol in with conventional gasoline under the Renewable Fuel Standard. In 2013, for the first time since the program was created six years ago, the EPA lowered its target for ethanol.

That was a major victory to the oil and gas industry. Refiners have long worried that the standard calls for them to make a blend of gasoline that may be harmful to cars.

But ethanol groups have not given up entirely. The EPA’s draft regulations aren’t yet final, and the industry hopes that renewable fuels will get a kinder look when the rules are finished.

Workers get silica dust exposure limits

After years of analysis and review, the Labor Department finally took the plunge in August on regulations to limit workers’ exposure to silica.

The dust is present at construction sites and shipyards and has been linked to numerous illnesses, including cancer. The new rules are expected to prevent as many as 700 deaths a year, according to federal estimates.

By the time it was proposed, the silica rule had languished for more than two years at the White House’s regulatory review office and, for safety advocates, had become symbolic of stalled worker protections under the Obama administration.

Some industry groups opposed the regulations, saying it was unnecessary after steps already taken to protect workers and would cost millions of dollars to implement.

Now comes the fight over the rule’s final language, which will determine whether business groups can win concessions, or if the administration will stand firm on the draft regulations.

SEC backs off political spending disclosures

After a year of consideration, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) decided not to start work on new rules requiring publicly traded corporations to disclosure their political spending.

The decision was a blow to advocates for transparency and campaign finance who had expected the agency to counter the uptick in corporate political spending in recent years.

Since the SEC first announced it was considering imposing the regulations late last year, it received more than 700,000 comments from the public, many of them backing the plan.

But when the SEC released its regular rulemaking agenda in the fall, the measure was notably absent.

Consumer bureau issues mortgage rules

The Dodd-Frank law called for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to make sure mortgage loans were only going out to people who were able to pay them back.

That led to new “ability-to-repay” rules for mortgage lenders, issued in January and set to go into effect early next year.

Those should prevent the kind of toxic loans that flooded the market in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis, according to advocates. CFPB Director Richard Cordray has called the new rules “lending 101.”

But financial institutions have complained that the new rules are too strict and difficult to manage. Small banks and credit unions, especially, have warned that onerous requirements could put them out of the mortgage business entirely.

Food safety do-over

Back in January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed regulations designed to transition the nation’s food safety system from a set of policies set up to react to illness outbreaks to one bent on preventing them.

The regulations, required by the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), were meant to enact the largest food safety update in 70 years.

In the months that followed, pressure mounted on the agency to revise the rules. Industry groups and congressional members from both parties objected to provisions they said would unduly burden farmers.

The agency agreed in late December to pull the regulations back and re-propose them next summer. The action, while praised by industry groups and some in Congress, could spell more delays for the effort that was supposed to be completed last year, according a statutory deadline.

Feds tell insurers to give equal treatment to mental health

The Obama administration unveiled regulations in November ordering insurers to treat mental and behavioral health issues the same as physical ailments.

The determination was perhaps the most consequential of 23 executive actions the White House announced in the wake of last year’s shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn.

The incident sparked a handful of executive efforts but failed to spur action in Congress, which voted down an effort to expand gun background checks early in the year.

Officials hoped that the health regulation would help the millions of mentally ill receive the care they need.   

Home healthcare workers get minimum wage

In the face of industry opposition, the Labor Department moved in September to extend minimum wage and overtime rights to almost two million workers in the fast-growing domestic healthcare industry.

The regulations mean that, beginning in 2015, in-home aids and assistant nurses will no longer fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act’s “companionship exemption,” under which they are denied the benefits.

Obama called the action long overdue, saying years earlier that home health aides should not be “lumped in the same category as teenage babysitters, when it comes to how much they make.”

However, business groups and congressional Republicans contend the regulations will cost billions of dollars, potential stunting the industry’s growth and raising the cost of healthcare.