U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue declared war Tuesday on the "vast regulatory state" with a new effort to curb the flow of rules from federal agencies.
Donohue said the business lobby would pursue legislation and litigation to stem the “unprecedented” growth of red tape under President Obama.
Business groups and congressional Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s regulatory policies, saying a flood of agency rules has slowed the nation’s recovery from the 2008 economic crisis.
Donohue said the accumulation of burdensome federal rules dates back much further, building steadily over the course of decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The result, he warned, is the rise of a fourth branch of government.
“Now we have a fourth branch and you won’t find it anywhere in the Constitution — a regulatory branch — and its potentially more powerful than the other three combined,” he said.
The comments drew sharp criticism from public interest groups, which have pressed federal agencies to move more aggressively to finalize regulations on numerous fronts, some of which have been in the works for years.
The Chamber’s initiative is just the latest in a series of attempts to thwart important public safeguards, said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen. The group is part of a coalition of watchdog and advocacy organizations pressing for stronger health and safety protections.
“We’ve remained as vigilant as ever,” Narang said.
Watchdog groups, along with congressional Democrats, argue that the criticism of regulations is overblown, and note that agencies draft regulations in response to federal statutes.
“They implement laws enacted by Congress,” Narang said.
Donohue, however, argued that the federal government lacks a sufficient mechanism to remove unnecessary rules from the books, resulting in an ever-growing thicket of regulations to which businesses must adhere.
There is disagreement over whether the rate of regulation has increased under Obama. While there are several metrics used to quantify the regulations coming from agencies, none are perfect.
A report issued this spring by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), for instance, found that the 13,000 rules finalized during Obama’s first term numbered slightly fewer than those published during former President George W. Bush’s first term.
But the same study showed that the number of pages of those regulations has increased in recent years.
“The size, scope and complexity of regulations are reaching immense proportions,” Donohue said.
Indeed, more “major rules,” those with an annual economic impact exceeding $100 million, were enacted in 2010 than in any year dating back to at least 1997, according to the CRS study.
Obama has also directed agencies to identify and root out overly burdensome and duplicative rules. But, by any count, the overall number of federal rules has increased on his watch.
Part of the growth stems from major congressionally mandated undertakings like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which together require agencies to draft hundreds of new rules.
Congressional Republicans have sought to counter agency actions with a host of bills meant to limit agency rulemaking authority, give Congress more sway over regulations and lighten the burden for businesses.
But few of the bills have a viable road forward in the divided Congress.
The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, for instance, which requires Congress to approve regulations expected to have an economic impact of more than $100 million a year, passed the House in August with support from just six Democrats.
Obama has vowed to veto that bill if it reaches his desk.
Donohue said Tuesday the Chamber was throwing its support behind a pair of bills with at least a measure of bipartisan backing.
The Regulatory Accountability Act would require agencies to conduct more analyses to measure the economic impact of rules they plan to issue, while the so-called RAPID Act is designed to ease the environmental review process seen as delaying construction and development projects around the nation.
Donohue also pledged to mount legal challenges against regulations seen as exceeding the authority of the executive branch.
He said the Chamber is on pace to file more than 100 such lawsuits this year, and is beefing up its legal office while bringing in an economist specializing in regulation.
Narang noted that the Chamber is simultaneously demanding more analyses of proposed regulations and less oversight of businesses.
“That’s about as naked a double standard as you can get,” Narang said.
“The courts are not venue to second guess and overturn regulations based on policy choices by Congress,” he said.
Donohue said the Chamber’s push would also include direct interaction with agencies to influence regulations now in the works, and, wherever necessary, calls for Congress to withhold funding through the appropriations process.
He declined to say how much money the Chamber is prepared to spend on the initiative, but described it as a major priority.
“Curbing the tsunami of regulations and fundamentally reforming the regulatory process are at the heart of the Chamber’s job and growth agenda,” he said.
— This story was updated at 6:16 p.m.