Congress, Trump quick to undo Obama rules
WASHINGTON — For the past couple of weeks, Congress has been more in the business of undoing rules than in its customary role of creating them.
Empowered by a Republican presidency, Congress has provided a steady regimen of regulation rollbacks in areas such as education, the environment and gun control.
Republicans say such a move is overdue: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that during President Barack Obama's final year in office, the Federal Register hit 97,100 pages — nearly 18,000 more than in 2008.
This month, the House has voted to undo eight rules from the Obama administration. Two of those rollbacks also have passed the Senate. If the president signs the reversals into law, it would signal a remarkable shift: Since 1996, Congress has only once repealed a regulation under the Congressional Review Act, which allows for undoing presidential regulations within 60 legislative days of their institution.
The time limit does not enable the GOP to fix everything it wants to; for example, it can't address controversial environmental regulations of power plants and water quality.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, said there's a time and place for regulations, but the federal government has too often opted to weigh in when it should not have.
"The federal government should be involved and issue regulations to protect national security, to protect public safety and to protect public health," he said. "And they should be scientifically based, based on fact, not on political ideology."
Among the areas with the most rules in the crosshairs this year:
The House voted Feb 2 to repeal a regulation imposed by Obama that would require the Social Security Administration to report to the FBI people who receive Social Security disability or Supplementary Security Income benefits and are unable to manage their finances because of a documented mental illness. The FBI would include those people in a database used for background checks for gun purchases. Gun-control groups had lauded the rule as a necessary protection to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Repealing the rule, said Erika Soto Lamb, chief communications officer for Everytown for Gun Safety, "downgrades a system built to enforce existing laws that keep guns out of hands that shouldn't have them."
She added: "Our background-check system is only as good as the records it contains, and this vote reopened the door for people prohibited from firearm ownership to illegally pass checks, buy and possess guns."
But Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said the regulation could prevent military veterans from seeking mental-health treatment out of fear that they could no longer possess guns.
"This rule is just a ridiculous grab to make a whole bunch of good people illegal gun owners," he said. "It's shameful and embarrassing that anyone ever thought this was a good idea."
Both the House and Senate voted this month to undo a regulation aimed at keeping mining waste out of nearby waterways. Obama signed the rule shortly before leaving office, so few streams will have benefited from the new regulation, said Becky Hammer, staff attorney on water issues for the National Resources Defense Council.
Without the rule, Hammer said, people aren't as well-protected from arsenic, mercury and selenium — three elements that "can cause really severe mental deficits in kids, and growth problems."
"Putting this in people's drinking-water supplies is obviously a very bad thing to do," she said.
But Rep. Johnson, who sponsored the disapproval measure in the House, said the rule was "absolutely, totally unnecessary."
"There have been laws in place for years both on the federal level and state level to prevent mining operators from dumping mine waste into streams," he said. "The rule had one purpose and one purpose only: to put a death knell into the coffin of the coal industry."
Johnson said Ohio has 33,000 jobs that depend on underground coal mining.
In some cases, it's not Congress repealing the rules. On Feb. 3, Trump signed an executive order directing a review of the "fiduciary rule," a measure slated to go into effect in April that requires financial advisers to put their clients' interests ahead of their own. Although Trump's executive order does not repeal the rule, it will at least delay implementation.
A federal judge separately upheld the regulation last week; her ruling is not expected to affect Trump's order of a review, however.
Among those who have weighed in against the rule is the Insured Retirement Institute, a trade association for the retirement-income industry, which worries that the rule is so cumbersome that it will make it more difficult for savers to plan for retirement.
"We continue to have significant concerns about the rule and its harmful impact on retirement savers," said Cathy Weatherford, the group's president and CEO, who applauded the executive order. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was among those who opposed the rule.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township, said the rule reflects more than six years of work with the financial industry, nonprofit organizations and consumer advocates. Beatty, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, said, "I worked directly with stakeholders and the department to ensure interested parties had ample opportunities to weigh in and that their concerns were adequately addressed in the final rule. Unfortunately, President Trump's memorandum seeks to delay or unwind this rule, throwing the marketplace into uncertainty and ultimately harming American workers saving for retirement."
Trump's review outraged Sen. Sherrod Brown, the leading Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. He said it will lead to unnecessary uncertainty for those who follow the rule because they might worry that they are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage to "fly-by-night" advisers.
Repeal of the rule, Brown said, would mean that people with modest retirement income will "see more of their retirement savings eaten up by fees."
"This is a disclosure requirement that says that investment advisers have to do what's best for their clients and not for themselves," he said. "It's pretty amazing that you need a law to say you have to do what's best for your client and not for yourself."