In the current congressional majority’s push to dismantle safeguards for health, safety and the environment, no tool has been more useful than the once-obscure Congressional Review Act (CRA). The law allows for the repeal of duly enacted regulatory safeguards using procedures that bypass meaningful deliberation and scrutiny – skipping committee consideration and sidestepping the Senate’s 60-vote cloture requirement.
As of spring 2018, it had been used to repeal 15 such safeguards that protected safe drinking water; kept weapons out of the hands of people suffering from mental illness; secured the privacy of Internet users’ browsing data; allowed consumers a realistic way to fight back when cheated by banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions; promoted greater access to family planning and other health care services for women in low-income and under-served communities; and more.
To make matters worse, congressional leaders, with enthusiastic support from corporate backers, have launched an effort to expand the reach of the Act to cover the “guidance documents” agencies create to help regulated industries understand how specific rules will be interpreted and enforced.
In The Congressional Review Act: The Case for Repeal, CPR’s Thomas McGarity, Rena Steinzor, James Goodwin, and Katherine Tracy write that the CRA is “designed to short-circuit Congress’s deliberative process and allow narrow partisan majorities to attack broadly popular public safeguards on behalf of politically powerful interests. … By unwinding the significant public health, safety, environmental, or financial security protections these safeguards would have otherwise delivered, each CRA resolution that is adopted boils down to a direct assault on the public interest.”
The report details the 2017 and 2018 CRA targets, examines the affected industries’ campaign contributions to key Members of Congress supporting repeals, compares the narrow margins by which the CRA repeals were adopted with the broad support for the underlying legislation the rules seek to enforce, and focuses in on the hasty process by which the repeals were “considered” and adopted.
As the authors conclude, “If there were any doubts about what a dangerous law the CRA is, the first year of the Trump administration surely laid those doubts to rest. Nearly every American will experience some harm – to their health, safety, or pocketbook – as a result of the frequent abuses of the CRA’s procedures. Moreover, these abuses will only further corrode public esteem for Congress as a policymaking institution while reinforcing the strong partisan divisions that have reduced Congress to a paralyzed and dysfunctional mess…. In short, the CRA has proved to be an irredeemably bad policy tool, with numerous disadvantages and no offsetting advantages.”
Because of the CRA’s expedited procedures, little deliberation was exercised over whether Obama-era rules should have been preserved. The whole process – from start to finish – took a few weeks at most, a lightning-quick pace by inside-the-Beltway standards. The resolutions were not the subject of investigative hearings or even much in the way of floor debates.
In contrast, the eliminated rules were often the result of several years’ worth of careful analysis, carried out by some of the leading experts in the relevant fields of engineering, law, medicine, and science.
Using the CRA’s backdoor procedures, Congress was busy denying us all the considerable benefits that these rules would have otherwise delivered. Those benefits include more jobs, improved environmental protections, greater financial security, safer workplaces, and better stewardship of our tax dollars by government entities at all levels.
When it comes to vote tallies, the contrast between the CRA resolutions and the statutes that authorized the rules that were eliminated could not be clearer. Thanks to the CRA’s expedited procedures, the anti-regulatory members of Congress were able to use their narrow partisan majorities to push through their agenda of defeating the implementation and enforcement of laws that enjoy broad public support.
By the narrowest of margins. All the CRA resolutions that Congress took up during the first several months of 2017 passed by slim, almost entirely party-line votes, underscoring what a nakedly partisan exercise the resolutions were. In the Senate, none would have mustered the 60 votes required for passage under regular Senate rules. Learn more.
Thwarting the public will. Nearly all of the rules eliminated through the CRA were authorized or required by earlier legislation that passed with broad bipartisan support, raising the specter that these resolutions were used to defeat the effective implementation of laws that enjoy strong public backing. If Congress couldn’t enact legislation to weaken these laws without causing a public uproar, should they have used a sneaky, backdoor route like the CRA to accomplish the same objective? Learn more.
The beneficiaries of this assault on our safeguards were the anti-regulation forces’ corporate patrons. Financial disclosure data reveal that the lead sponsors of these CRA resolutions received significant campaign contributions from the very industries that most directly benefited from the regulatory rollbacks that the resolutions accomplished. The secretive nature of these resolutions, combined with their direct benefits for favored corporate interests, created the perfect breeding ground for corruption. Even if these CRA resolutions were not the result of an explicit or implicit quid pro quo, the appearance of impropriety they created was sufficient to weaken public esteem for our governing institutions, further undermining the legitimacy of our democracy.
Pay to play. The lead House and Senate sponsors of many of the CRA resolutions that Congress considered have received significant campaign contributions from the industries that stood to benefit from the regulatory rollbacks. At worst, the CRA invites outright political corruption; at best, it creates an appearance of impropriety that threatens to do lasting damage to the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.