Advocates bemoan ‘regulatory paralysis’

Public interest groups got a rare chance Thursday to take the offensive in the raging congressional debate over federal regulations.

At the first hearing of a Senate panel with jurisdiction over the regulatory process, proponents of stronger protections for the environment, worker safety and public health contended that well-heeled business interests enjoy outsized influence over rulemaking at government agencies.

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“These efforts have turned what should be an expert-driven, science-based process for formulating public policy into a blood sport, with the party able to spend the most money becoming the most likely to win,” said law Professor Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform.

Federal regulations have become a favorite punching for the House GOP during a string of hearings convened in recent months. Numerous Republican-controlled panels — including the House committees on Oversight and Government Reform, Energy and Commerce and Small Business — have derided the accumulation of agency rules as crippling to the private sector.

But the issue has received less attention on the north end of Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action, established this year, convened a hearing focusing on the impacts of “regulatory paralysis.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the hearing was the first in a series he would hold to examine regulations, "subject by subject, topic area by topic area."

Blumenthal said the panel was not formed to rebut the contentions of House Republicans.

“This committee is a response to the delay in regulations,” he said after the hearing.

Witnesses testified that important rules, many required by statute, have routinely stalled, despite deadlines under which they are supposed to be finalized by the government.

On average, it now takes roughly eight years to promulgate a major rule — one with an annual cost of $100 million or more — said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s longtime director of Occupational Safety and Health.

“We used to be able to get rules out,” she lamented.

The lone Republican senator at the hearing, Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), appeared sympathetic to the concerns, but he argued that the impact of regulations must be considered carefully, and closely monitored after they are enacted.

“I respect what you are trying to do,” Hatch said.  “But we’ve got to find a way that regulations are enacted quickly and dis-enacted when they don’t work.”

Critics of the regulatory policies currently in place echoed those sentiments, pointing to mountains of paperwork burdens and ever-increasing compliance costs, which they argue must be weighed more often against the benefits produced by new rules.

“Regulations have been consistently accumulating for decades,” said Patrick McLaughlin, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “We cannot have confidence agencies make the best regulatory choices because their analysis is unsatisfactory.”

The last month alone brought new proposed regulations that would require up to ten million paperwork burden hours, said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum.

But defenders of more stringent regulations countered that those costs pale in comparison to the lost lives and illnesses caused by lax worker protections, safety rules and environmental standards.

They pointed to stalled rules requiring back-up camera’s on cars to prevent children from being run over, establishing new limits for construction workers’ exposure to harmful silica dust and imposing an array of new air pollution restrictions.

“Nothing less than the health of millions of people is at stake,” Steinzor said.