One of the first orders of business for the freshly convened 115th Congress – now that it’s no longer attempting to gut an independent ethics office – is to pass a bill which could weaken the ability of federal regulatory agencies to do their jobs.
That law, the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act of 2017, has long been a legislative priority for Koch Industries, Koch-funded advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Its latest iteration, H.R. 26, has the backing of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and 159 co-sponsors (five Democrats and 154 Republicans) and has reached full debate on the House floor.
REINS dictates that a “major rule shall not take effect unless the Congress enacts a joint resolution of approval” and won’t become law if Congress does not pass that resolution by “70 session days or legislative days, as applicable.”
President Barack Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) came out against the 2015 version of the REINS Act.
The OMB pointed toward the myriad existing safeguards that already ensure regulatory agency accountability, including the federal court system, the fact that many regulatory proposals actually stem from laws passed by Congress, and the requirement for robust public commenting periods.
“This radical departure from the longstanding separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches would delay and, in many cases, thwart implementation of statutory mandates and execution of duly-enacted laws, create business uncertainty, undermine much-needed protections of the American public, and cause unnecessary confusion,” OMBwrote in July 2015.
“By replacing this well-established framework with a blanket requirement of Congressional approval, H.R. 427 would throw all major regulations into a months-long limbo, fostering uncertainty and impeding business investment that is vital to economic growth.”
A DeSmog investigation shows that Koch Industries and its front groups have been behind the earliest pushes to pass the REINS Act.
Tellingly, the only person President-elect Donald Trump has spoken to on the record about REINS is Phil Kerpen, president of the think-tank American Commitment. According to his LinkedIn profile, Kerpen worked for more than five years as Vice President of Policy for the Koch-founded and Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP).
“I will sign the REINS Act should it reach my desk as President and more importantly I will work hard to get it passed,” Trump said in a statement for Kerpen’s December 30, 2016 op-ed.
“The monstrosity that is the Federal Government with its pages and pages of rules and regulations has been a disaster for the American economy and job growth. The REINS Act is one major step toward getting our government under control.”
Kerpen’s post was titled, “It’s time to rein in regulators.”
In his 2011 book Democracy Denied: How Obama is Ignoring You and Bypassing Congress to Radically Transform America – and How to Stop Him, written while he still worked for AFP, Kerpen devoted an entire chapter in support of REINS.
During that time, AFP also ran ObamaChart.com, a website DeSmog tracked down using internet archives, which depicted the REINS legislation as the solution for reversing “how it has become standard procedure in the Obama administration not to take no for an answer.”
In the introduction to Democracy Denied, Kerpen says the book “is an extended commentary on the chart,” with the REINSAct serving as a panacea for the problem he claims exists.
“Support for the REINS Act needs to be a basic litmus test for candidates for the House of Representatives, Senate, and president of the United States,” wrote Kerpen in his book. “Candidates who refuse to promise to restore accountability for legislative decisions to Congress are not worthy of support.”
Fast-forwarding to today, Kerpen and American Commitment have launched a social media push for REINS, purchased the web domain REINSAct.com in July 2015, and started an online petition campaign advocating for REINS‘ passage, which to date has garnered over 113,000 signatures.
According to lobbying disclosure forms, Koch Industries began lobbying on the REINS Act in the third quarter of 2010. Joining Koch were the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation‘s Heritage Action for America.
That same year, congressional Republicans issued their “Pledge to America” before the mid-term elections, which included the basic tenets of REINS and even included the word “rein.”
The Koch brothers spent millions of dollars to elect Republicans during that landmark electoral cycle, which saw Republicans take a majority in the U.S. House, pick up 680 statehouse seats, and win six gubernatorial elections.
“We will rein in the red tape factory in Washington, DC by requiring congressional approval of any new federal regulation that may add to our deficit and make it harder to create jobs,” promised congressional Republicans.
In 2012, the new congressional session introduced REINS once again, this time with much more backing from industry lobbyists. Koch, Heritage, and the Chamber of Commerce were joined this time around by Peabody Energy, Duke Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, and others.
Also in 2012, ALEC – which is funded by and which provides a corporate bill mill forum for all of these – passed a model resolution in support of REINS.
“The bill provides common-sense ways to ensure regulatory accountability to the American people through their elected representatives and to reduce the unintended negative consequences of new regulations on economic and job growth,” wrote WEA in an April 2015 letter.
Coming full circle, Koch Industries and AFP lobbied for a state-level version of the REINS Act in 2015 in Wisconsin, according to the state’s lobbying disclosure database. The bill, Assembly Bill 251, passed in the State Assembly but not in the Senate and was just re-introduced for the 2017 session.
On December 20, 2016, AFP included passage of the REINS Act in its list of “7 Things That Should Be On Everyone’s Wishlist for Our New Congress” and on January 4, the group published a press release calling for its passage, while Kerpen posted an article saying “We were never closer to seeing REINS Act become law.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump referred to Republicans reliant on Koch money as “puppets” and said he turned down a meeting with the Koch brothers. Yet, the Trump administration is increasingly loaded with Koch allies.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled with the REINS Act. In a January 4 letter written to Speaker Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Center for American Progress (CAP) said that if the REINS Act passes, it would be akin to a “shutdown” of federal regulatory agencies.
“By requiring an affirmative vote by Congress for a regulation to become effective, and allowing non-action to result, effectively, in a veto of those regulations, the REINS Act is for all intents and purposes a shutdown of the regulatory branch of the Federal government,” wrote CAP. “Congress should do its job and protect the public, not hand the government over to corporate and special interests.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council has also denounced the bill.
Ryan, however, feels his party has a mandate to pass legislation such as the REINS Act. In the address he gave after being announced Speaker of the House for the 115th Congress, Ryan called the three branches of GOP-controlled government a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“This is the kind of thing that most of us only dream about. I know – because I used to dream about it,” said Ryan. “The people have given us unified government. And it wasn’t because they were feeling generous. It’s because they wanted results.”