Time is fast running out on President Obama’s regulatory agenda and proponents of stronger health and safety protections are pressing the administration to redouble efforts to cement a host of new rules before it is too late.
With a unified Republican Congress soon to be to be sworn in, public interest groups expect the president’s last two years in office to be fraught with conflict as the administration tries to secure its legacy.
“Given how slow the regulatory process is, two years is a very short time,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen. “There is a lot of urgency for the administration and federal agencies to move fast to finalize these rules.”
The GOP plans to take aim at pending regulations on everything from the Internet and food safety to the clean air provisions that represent the core of Obama’s plan to combat climate change.
Republicans, emboldened by their success in the midterm elections, contend they have a mandate to fight back against the president’s regulatory proposals – especially those in development the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThough flawed, complex Medicaid block grants have fighting chance Sanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress McConnell: Trump's speech should be 'tweet free' MORE (R-Ky.), the next Senator majority leader, has already vowed “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”
Defenders of the proposed rules are bracing for an assault on the very basis of the Executive Branch’s rulemaking powers.
“They’ll be attacking the process agencies have to go through to finalize these regulations,” Narang said. “Agencies already have so many requirements to comply with now that it’s taking them far longer than it used to, to finalize critical safety measures.”
Included on the president’s agenda are limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, an air quality standard for ozone and rules to better protect workers from silica dust.
Obama’s rulemaking race to the finish line is far from unique to his administration, as former presidents George W. Bush and Bill ClintonBill ClintonHillary Clinton rallies DNC members in video message Obama draws crowd, cheers in NYC Ginsburg: Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is 'very easy to get along with' MORE grappled with similar challenges.
Administrations have long spent their last years in office pushing through regulations, said Ronald White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government.
But the pressure for a Democratic president to finish what he started as a new GOP-dominated Congress takes power is likely to create aen especially confrontational dynamic.
Republicans have at their disposal tools to combat rules, including control over agency funding and a little used statute through which Congress can block regulations.
“Riders in appropriations bills or the use of the Congressional Review Act are potentially viable mechanisms both the House and Senate can use to try and undermine or overturn specific regulations,” White said.
Congressional Republicans and business groups are also pressing for passage of legislation meant to clamp down on agency rulemaking.
The National Federation of Independent Business, for instance, is pushing Congress to pass the Flexibility Improvement Act and the Regulatory Accountability Act, legislation that would force agencies to take additional steps consider the consequences of a rule and adopt the most cost-effective approach.
"Far too often agencies do cost and benefit calculations and look at all types of benefits, even tertiary effects, but only look at the direct cost of the rule imposed," said NFIB's Regulatory Policy Manager Dan Bosch. "We would like agencies to account for reasonable foreseeable costs."
Another pending bill, the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, would require both chambers of Congress to sign off on any rules that would cost $100 million or more annually.
It’s a tool Narang said Republicans want to be able to block any regulation a faction of the conservative base opposes.
“A majority of republicans have clearly not come out and said that we need to repeal the clean air act or food safety laws,” he said. “Instead they want to, in an innocuous way, gut these laws by making sure agencies cant enforce them.”
But pro-regulation advocates note that Obama is unlikely to sign any legislation undermining the executive branch’s rulemaking power, and he could also veto appropriations bills that withhold funding for key priorities.
Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, said republicans are standing on weak ground, too afraid to pinpoint which regulations they plan to attack.
”It’s easier to rant and rave about regulations in general than it is to take a stance on specific regulations,” she said. “They don’t want to say, ‘I don’t want safe food. I don’t care if kids as young as 12 are getting poisoned in tobacco fields’ …the conversation has been left generic.”