The REINS Act: A constituent’s question receives a vote in Congress

In Washington, it’s not every day legislation actually begins with a constituent’s idea. The REINS Act is one of those ideas.

The House last week passed H.R. 427, also known as the Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act. The measure requires Congress to vote on and the president to sign a resolution explicitly approving federal rules that have an economic impact of greater than $100 million.

We don’t like to talk about it, but many pieces of legislation originate with a lobbyist drafting text and finding a legislator willing to carry the bill. The REINS Act is different. It started as a question from a constituent in Kentucky.

The Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 entered into an expensive consent decree regarding stormwater management issues in Covington, Ky. While discussing the issue with former Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), Lloyd Rogers of Alexandria, Ky., asked who actually was accountable for the regulations average citizens face.

The simple question carried tremendous weight.  Davis realized he really didn’t have a meaningful opportunity to vote on those rules and voters never had the chance to hold bureaucrats accountable, other than a vote every four years for their boss.

Depending on which party is in the White House, members of Congress frequently bemoan the regulatory overreach of the executive branch. From interpretations of the Patriot Act to EPA rules, politicos across the ideological spectrum routinely explain to constituents that they’re powerless to stop the federal regulatory train.

That’s a convenient excuse for lazy politicians. The train doesn’t have any fuel absent congressional authority. The executive branch can make administrative rules to implement law, but it can’t make the substantive legal changes we’ve seen over the last few decades without Congress delegating the authority to do so.

Congress needs to be accountable for the laws we face. If you don’t think federal regulations are laws, just try ignoring them.

Obviously, the REINS Act would make the president less powerful, so we can safely assume that almost any resident of the White House won’t like it.

Who else doesn’t like the REINS Act? Businesses and special interests that use the power of government to smash their competition.

Think about it. Is it easier to secure special favors from a cozy relationship with one regulator or 535 members of Congress? Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s no accident that special interests like to hold up the notion that we should leave the details of laws to regulatory “experts.”

If you have the cash and clout to fashion regulations for yourself, the cumbersome and opaque federal regulatory process is a tremendous tool. You even get the added bonus of being able to complain about it at the same time you benefit from it.

That’s why we have a divided legislature making the laws in the first place. Doing so shouldn’t be easy and it certainly shouldn’t be streamlined for those who plan to use government for their private advantage.

The House repeatedly has passed the REINS Act only to watch it die in the Senate. Democrats have played protectionist politics instead of acting responsibly. Were a Republican in the White House, you can bet the GOP would behave the same way.

The REINS Act didn’t come from an elite industry player or union; it started with a concerned voter. The REINS Act makes sense precisely because it’s not designed to favor any party or policy. It’s about accountability for our politicians—accountability to the people rather than the powerful.

Now that the REINS Act has once again passed the House, we’ll get to see who caves to cronyist pressure first. Will it be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refusing to bring up the REINS Act to protect well-heeled business interests or will it be Democrats blocking a vote in an effort to put partisan politics over the American people?

We’re certainly not going to agree on politics, but maybe we can settle on a simple idea from a concerned voter that the people who write our laws should answer to us.

Smith is southern region director and senior fellow of the R Street Institute, and helped draft the REINS Act legislation while serving as counsel to former Rep. Geoff Davis.

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