Regulatory fights loom large in 2014

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Battles lines are being drawn for a series of upcoming clashes over new regulations on the horizon in 2014.

The year promises to be chock full of contentious fights over scores of new rules stemming from ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank and a host of other laws.

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Many of the provisions have already drawn fire, and opposition to high profile measures on the environment and healthcare is sure to increase ahead of the midterm elections.  Republicans will point to the efforts as “job killing” overreach from President Obama, and some Democrats have already begun to distance themselves from controversial regulatory efforts.

Some lawmakers and public interest advocates, meanwhile, have launched another attack against the executive branch, claiming that delays or weakened new rules have harmed the public.

Here’s a glance at ten of the biggest regulatory fights expected in 2014:

Emissions standards for existing power plants

Obama has given the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) until June to propose regulations limiting carbon emissions from existing power plants, setting the stage for a high-stakes brawl over the centerpiece of the president’s climate change plan.

Critics say the regulations would decimate the coal industry, which supplies a major portion of the nation’s electricity, and are vowing to mount a legal challenge to strike down the regulations on grounds that the EPA is exceeding its authority.

The administration argues that it can regulate power plant emissions under the Clean Air Act, a position that has found backing in the courts. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has insisted the forthcoming rule will give states flexibility in how they meet the standards.

But such assurances aren’t likely to keep opponents of the regulations from assailing the Obama administration’s “war on coal” during the coming election year, especially in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.

Regulation coming to e-cigarettes, cigars

Regulations on tobacco cigarettes don’t apply to electronic cigarettes, cigars or hookah, but that could soon change.

The FDA is working on a regulation that could extend current rules to e-cigarettes, which produce vapor instead of smoke, as well as other forms of tobacco.

Opponents of the effort say that fees and restrictions on marketing that apply to cigarettes shouldn’t be extended to other forms of tobacco, since they aren’t necessarily as dangerous.

But public health advocates counter that the FDA should do its best to protect the public if it fears there may be any question about the products’ health effects.

ObamaCare’s birth control mandate heads to court

The Supreme Court agreed in November to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s so-called birth control mandate.

The healthcare law’s requirement that workers be offered contraception as part of their employers' insurance coverage has come under fire from conservatives and religious groups who call it unconstitutional and compels employers who object to contraception to violate their principles.

The High Court is expected to hear arguments in the case some time in spring.

The White House, which argues the provision is both lawful and essential to women’s health, insists it is confident the regulations will be upheld.

Turbulence for plan to allow phones on planes

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in mid-December to consider lifting the longstanding ban on in-flight cell phone use.

While a similar proposal to allow the use of tablets and other devices on planes won praise from the public, the prospect of loud conversations has sparked fierce opposition – and a baptism by fire for new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler has said the rule change would mean simply that fears about interference are no longer an issue, but he stressed that it would be up to airlines to decide whether to allow the practice.

Still, outrage prompted federal legislation that would ban in-flight calls, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has suggested his agency might step in to prohibit in-flight calls by imposing a new regulation.

The debate is expected to play out on both fronts in 2014.

EPA to assert power over streams and ponds

The EPA has started the process of declaring that it has the power to regulate streams, brooks and small ponds.

The agency says that issuing a new rule is necessary to clear up uncertainty about its powers under the Clean Water Act, after Supreme Court rulings cast doubt on the extent of the EPA’s authority.

Regulating smaller bodies of water is necessary to protect larger rivers and lakes downstream, the EPA and environmental groups assert.

But Republicans have been quick to criticize the effort.  They have already begun to label the effort a “power grab” that could allow the EPA to control privately owned waters and questioned the science underpinning the agency’s effort.

Their opposition will only increase in 2014, as the public gets a chance to comment on a forthcoming draft regulation.

Smog rule on the way

Obama dealt to a blow to environmental activists in 2011, when he killed an EPA attempt to issue new standards on ozone, the main contributor to smog.

The White House said at the time that the regulatory burdens could hurt the still-struggling economy, and that new rules were unnecessary since the EPA was already scheduled to review them in 2013.

The EPA is behind on that effort, but is likely to make significant strides in 2014.

Advocates say that tougher standards could prevent up to 12,000 premature deaths each year, but business groups that oppose a strong regulation warn it could cost up to $1 trillion. Critics say it might also be especially hard for Western states, which have higher natural levels of ozone, to comply with a strict rule.

SEC to force executives to disclose pay

Fewer than half of hundreds of rules required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law have been implemented, and 2014 will see plenty of action on regulations meant to tighten the government’s reins on the financial sector.

Among some 40 items on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s rulemaking agenda is a particularly contentious regulation to require companies to disclose the gap in pay between their chief executives and average employees.

Businesses groups strongly oppose the measure, saying it would be overly burdensome to calculate and unnecessary. But unions and liberals have pushed for the proposal as a way to shame companies and help workers negotiate their salaries.

The regulation is one of many Dodd-Frank provisions whose fate may ultimately be decided in the courts.

Calorie counts coming to restaurant menus

One of the lesser-known provisions of the Affordable Care Act was a requirement that chain restaurant menus and vending machines say how many calories are in the food they offer.

The provision was meant to combat obesity and help Americans make healthier choices.

Major restaurant groups support the effort, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has delayed for more than a year, but major pizza parlors and grocery stores have fired back.

Requiring the calorie counts for every variety of prepared food they sell could be a massive expense and be too difficult to calculate, they argue. Those industries hope that a final FDA regulation, expected to be issued in February, give them a fair amount of flexibility.

Delays to rearview camera rule under attack

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is already two years late on a regulation requiring all cars to have rearview cameras or similar technology, and aren’t likely to be done with the rule any time soon.

By law, the department was supposed to issue the regulations in 2011, as a way to prevent children from being backed over. But this year, the DOT further pulled back its effort to issue the rule, claiming it needed until 2015 to do further analysis.

Public safety advocates, who estimate that two children a week are killed in backover accidents each week, filed a lawsuit shortly after that delay was announced.

They argue that the DOT has repeatedly broken the law by slowing down the rule, and that the delay has cost children’s lives.

Public pressure on the administration is only likely to increase as that case makes it way through the court.

OSHA to rekindle combustible dust debate

The Occupational Safety and Health Administrator has come under fire from safety groups, who say it is dragging its feet on long-sought standards for combustible dust.

Even materials that don’t burn in large pieces – like aluminum or iron – can ignite and explode in dust form,  and is seen as particularly dangerous for many industries, including food, textile, metal, pesticides and coal.

Citing scores of deaths and more than 700 injuries since the 1980s, OSHA began work on a rule to regulate the dust in 2009, but has not yet completed the process.

But OSHA has placed the item on its rulemaking agenda for 2014, listing spring as a target date to propose a draft regulation.

Business groups are likely to protest, given that OSHA estimates put the annual cost of implementing the forthcoming rule above $100 million.