The Senate bill that puts the public at risk

Trump wants to end the "administrative state"
Trump wants to end the "administrative state"

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Story highlights

  • Rhea Suh: The Regulatory Accountability Act could be taken up by the Senate as early as this summer
  • The legislation would make it easier to overturn existing protections and delay pending ones, putting the public at risk, writes Suh

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)As early as this summer, the US Senate could take up a bill that would dramatically tilt the scale from public interest to corporate interest on common sense safeguards for consumers, workers, safety, health and the environment.

The bill, a version of which passed in the House earlier this year, was introduced by Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH., and is cynically named the Regulatory Accountability Act. What it would do is put people at needless risk.
The Senate should vote it down.
    Rhea Suh
    Proponents of the bill claim it would make federal regulations more transparent to promote public input. But, in reality, it would do the opposite -- empower the small, political Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House to wield authority over our health, safety and welfare, operating far from public view.
    The bill was crafted to provide Wall Street, fossil fuel companies, industrial polluters and others with new tools to grind the wheels of public protections to a halt, making it harder for individuals to hold corporations to account.
    By reviving a system of administrative tribunals, the legislation would, in some cases, enable corporate attorneys to badger agency officials with endless proceedings and trial-like hearings that would ultimately hold up pending protections.
    We've tried that before -- as federal efforts to set standards for peanut butter were bogged down for a decade by the processed food industry -- and wisely abandoned the practice decades ago because it drove taxpayer costs through the roof, delayed needed action and produced little tangible benefit.
    Portman's bill, by design, would paralyze our ability to keep up with changing times and respond to emerging threats like financial scams and toxic chemicals that harm consumers, or industrial practices that endanger workers. It would also make it easier for corporations to overturn existing protections in court and diminish the worth of the legal, scientific and economic expertise in the federal agencies we depend on to know their subjects best, by imposing subjective rulemaking standards that invite litigation.
    At immediate risk are pending protections like those to modernize the prevention of the spread of disease through meat and poultry, rules regarding aircraft and airports, and guidelines to strengthen protections against lead-contaminated tap water.
    The bill would also jeopardize urgently needed safeguards like those that address emerging risks in self-driving cars, standards for breast cancer detection protocols, terrorist threats to chemical facilities and nuclear power plants and corporate pollution.
    The Regulatory Accountability Act isn't a stand-alone initiative. It's the legislative centerpiece of a larger effort by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to overthrow the entire system of rules-based safeguards we have a right to expect from our government.
    This flawed approach ignores the purpose of the rules and the manifest benefits they provide. But this is nothing new -- there were similar industry pushbacks when efforts were made to improve auto safety through the implementation of seat belts and air bags, remove lead from gasoline and warn consumers of the health hazards of smoking.
    Overall, federal regulations have been estimated to provide from $269 billion to $872 billion in annual public benefits, at a cost of between $74 billion and $110 billion. That works out to as much as $11.78 in benefits for every dollar invested by business and government to comply. That's what the White House Office of Management and Budget concluded in December, based on expert analysis of regulations reviewed between 2005-2015, with amounts adjusted for inflation.
    That's why public safeguards are put in place -- to benefit the public. Critics sweep those benefits under the floor with language meant to distract us from what's really at stake.
    Trump and his enablers on Capitol Hill, for example, speak of "midnight regulations" rushed through behind closed doors, "regulatory overreach" from "unelected bureaucrats" or what White House chief strategist Steve Bannon calls "the administrative state," the idea that somehow government has no role in protecting our safety, health, environment and financial security.
    Nonsense.
    Every federal safeguard, rule or standard that protects us - in our homes, on the job or anywhere else -- serves a purpose and must be grounded in law, sound science, and the public interest. Each must have a basis in the federal statutes Congress passes and be openly shared with the public, which can express opinions long before the legislation is made final.
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    What Trump and congressional Republicans are really trying to do is to stack the deck against us by granting corporations new powers to bog down the process through which responsible public oversight protects the people.
    Nobody wants over-regulation, but these essential protections are fundamental to keeping people safe and our businesses prosperous. Unless the Senate stands up for the American people and says no to the Regulatory Accountability Act that safety and prosperity may be taken away.