Congressional Clock Running Out to Repeal Obama Regulations

Updated on
  • Deadline to use Congressional Review Act a month away
  • Rules on methane, chemical safety, credit cards in limbo

Hunting bears by airplane is legal again on federal land in Alaska and the mentally-ill can purchase guns thanks to Republicans’ successful use of a once-obscure law allowing them to quickly roll back regulations.

But with a key deadline for using the Congressional Review Act looming, plenty of other rules targeted for elimination are likely to be spared -- or fall into the longer, laborious process of review by the administration.

"That window is closing," Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters Wednesday. 

Congress has until roughly the end of the month -- the deadline is set by the number of days it is in session -- to act on the 20 pending measures. Lawmakers are scheduled to leave town for a two-week break Friday. After that they will have a week-long sprint to try to reach a budget agreement and avoid a government shutdown. That leaves little time for other issues, and opponents can demand up to 10 hours of Senate debate for each review act measure.

The top remaining target for Republicans is an Interior Department rule requiring companies to find and repair leaks of methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- from pipelines, processing equipment and wells. The American Petroleum Institute has lobbied hard to get the rule overturned, arguing it could curtail exploration and development of oil and natural gas on federal lands. The measure easily passed the House in February, but has since stalled in the Senate. 

Read More: Killing Obama’s Rules? Congress Has an Act for That: QuickTake

"That’s definitely the most significant one," said Sam Batkins, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum, a Washington research group that favors smaller government.

Senate leaders remain one to two votes shy of a majority needed for passage, said Robert Dillon, a former Senate Republican staff member who now works with the American Council for Capital Formation, which backs repealing the rule. One stumbling block is Ohio Republican Rob Portman who says he hasn’t decided how he would vote.

"I think the regulation is an overreach, but I think there is a more reasonable approach that could be taken," Portman said. Part of his hesitation is a provision of the law that prohibits federal agencies from crafting “substantially the same” rules, he said.

Portman and other lawmakers are facing pressure from environmental groups as well as Taxpayers for Common Sense, which argues flaring natural gas on federal land instead of capturing it and selling it results in millions of dollars in lost royalty revenue.

Read More: Trump Sweeps Away Climate Rules Vowing ‘New Energy Revolution’

A CRA vote "would prohibit similar rules to limit waste and collect royalties in the future," the group said in letter to Congress earlier this year.

Even without congress that rule could be scrapped. The Interior Department has begun a review of it. That effort is expected to take at least a year, and will likely be followed by lengthy lawsuits, said Kevin Book, managing director of the Washington-based research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said his preference is for Congress to pass the CRA resolution killing the methane rule.

"I would like to see a CRA on it, because it lessens the litigation," Zinke said in a March 28 interview. At the end of the day, if it is spiked by a CRA resolution, "we’ll go forward to make a modification to the rule that makes sense," Zinke said.

In addition to that rule, lawmakers could act on one of the four other measures that have been introduced in both chambers of Congress: rolling back regulations on coal valuation, chemical safety, pre-paid credit cards and regional haze in Utah, Batkins said.

The Electronics Transactions Association is pushing to scrap the regulation that requires issuers of pre-paid credit cards to improve fee transparency, provide protection against fraud and limit overdraft fees, according to the watchdog group Public Citizen. 

CRA Expires

"CRA resolutions are payback to the corporate class that elected Republicans to Congress and are designed to roll back measures that have overwhelming public support," Lisa Gilbert, the Washington-based group’s vice president of legislative affairs, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the measures that only have been introduced in one chamber of Congress are less likely to get a vote. Those include a measure backed by Republican Ted Cruz that would roll back Energy Department rules used to set energy efficiency standards for compressors and one to block Treasury Department rules to close tax inversion loopholes.

Once the ability to use the CRA expires, the administration can move on its own to rewrite rules it doesn’t like. But undoing rules that way is time consuming and leaves the decision vulnerable to lawsuits, said Morton Rosenberg, a former Congressional Research Service specialist.

The administration has already started to act. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed delaying by two-years chemical safety regulations established after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. There’s a proposal in Congress to cancel that rule but Congress has yet to vote on it.

‘Regulatory Overreach’

Use of the so-called CRA has been one area of unity between congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, as both have complained that “regulatory overreach” by Obama has harmed the economy, curtailed job growth and depressed business investment. The law had only been used successfully once before, to repeal a Clinton-era ergonomics rule. Under the CRA, the Senate has 60 legislative days after a rule is issued to act to rescind it. That clock restarted this year with the new Congress.

Estimates vary for when the deadline for acting runs out. The White House says Congress has until April 28 to act on proposed measures while the Senate Republican Policy Committee says it’s actually May 9.

In addition to easing the gun rules and allowing bear hunting in Alaskan wildlife refuges Congress has voted to allow internet service providers to use customers browsing data for marketing and to make it easier for coal companies to open mines in Appalachia.

Repealing the 11 rules that had been signed by Trump will provide $10 billion in benefits to the U.S. economy, according to Short, the White House legislative aide.

— With assistance by Jennifer A Dlouhy

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