The Vice Presidential debate is tonight, and I suspect that, among other things, we’ll hear Paul Ryan give some general talk of “reducing red tape” or “reducing government burdens on job creators.” We probably won’t hear a pitch for blocking air pollution rules that would save thousands of lives—which, after all, doesn’t poll well. But that’s exactly what Ryan has voted for, over and over.
Representative Ryan’s record on regulations and the environment has received relatively little attention outside an initial burst in the environmental press, probably because he’s pitched himself on his budget, and has no real environmental initiatives specifically to his name. (Note that his extreme budget proposal, which would slash federal discretionary spending, would devastate the federal agencies charged with protecting the public—though of course we don’t get to hear the specifics, which would be quite unpopular).
What hasn’t gotten much attention, though, is the dozens of times that Ryan has voted to limit agencies’ ability to carry out their statutory mission of protecting people and the environment—most notably his repeated votes to undo critical provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. If enacted, these bills would undermine the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to protect people and the environment against the risks of toxic air pollution. That a candidate for Vice President has publicly supported gutting the Clean Air Act is remarkable. Yet in the era of a new normal for Congressional Republicans—where most of them voted for these bills—Ryan’s positions have generally escaped public scrutiny.
Last October, Representative Ryan voted in favor of the EPA Regulatory Relief Act, which would both delay until at least late 2017 any EPA rules regulating toxic air pollution from industrial and commercial boilers and weaken the statutory standard for controlling this pollution, so that the EPA would be required to write a less protective rule. The huge delay alone would have been bad enough: The EPA’s boiler air toxics rules are already more than a decade late, and, according to EPA estimates, each year without the rule results in the failure to prevent between 2200 and 6000 premature deaths, 4100 heart attacks, and 42,000 asthma attacks (note that those numbers are likely to be changed somewhat when the EPA eventually finalizes the rule). The substantive change to the Clean Air Act standard governing toxic air pollution is truly extreme, amounting to a complete rejection of a two-decades-old commitment to providing all Americans with the strongest achievable protections against mercury, dioxin, acid gases, and other hazardous air pollutants.
Congress established the EPA’s toxic air pollutants program in 1990 as part of that year’s Clean Air Act Amendments. The bill enjoyed nearly unanimous support in the House of Representatives, receiving 401 votes in favor to just 25 votes against. The law directs the EPA to set air toxic standards for specific industrial categories that are based on what the least polluting members of the industry are already achieving, with the goal of pushing all members of the industry to meet the highest performance standards. The EPA Regulatory Relief Act that Ryan supported lowers the bar significantly, directing the EPA to set the standard at the level being met by the least polluting boilers operating under a combination of the dirtiest conditions.
The bottom line: The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments represent a commitment to protecting public health; the bill that Ryan supported represented a commitment to protecting corporate bottom lines.
Representative Ryan also voted for two similar bills affecting the cement manufacturing industry and fossil fuel power plants. The first, the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act, would do for the cement manufacturing industry what the EPA Regulatory Relief Act would do for operators of industrial and commercial boilers: It would delay the rule (which is already more than a decade overdue) by at least four-and-a-half years and it would direct the EPA to write a standard based on a “best of the worst performers” formula that is similar to the one in the boiler bill.
The Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act, among other things, would nullify the EPA’s pending air toxics rule for fossil fuel power plants and require the agency to start from scratch on developing the rule. Significantly, the bill did not place a deadline on completing the replacement rule, which means it could be delayed indefinitely.
Representative Ryan also voted for many of the extreme regulatory reform bills that came before the House, which, if enacted, would make it nearly impossible for the EPA and other agencies to issue any protective safeguards. Most notably, Ryan voted for the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would prohibit agencies from issuing new big rules unless Congress affirmatively approves them first. He also voted for the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would drastically overhaul the Administrative Procedure Act by adding several new procedural obstacles and analytical requirements that would delay rulemakings by several years, if not block them altogether.
Of course, Ryan has not been the ringmaster of this anti-regulatory circus. House Republicans have made attacking regulations—particularly those aimed at safeguarding public health and the environment—a top priority. According to a database maintained by the Democratic staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House of Representatives has voted 315 times to weaken or block environmental and public health protections since Republicans took over in January of 2011. By and large, the anti-regulatory votes comprising the database, including those bills discussed above, have largely fallen along party lines, with nearly all Republicans voting to block environmental and public health safeguards.
Nevertheless, Representative Ryan’s votes reveal how extreme a position he and the mainstream of today’s Republican Party have taken with respect to public health and environmental regulations. If Ryan is opposed to regulatory no-brainers such as rules to limit hazardous air pollution from the largest sources of these pollutants, it’s hard to imagine what kind of safeguards he would support.