The Republican Solution to Red Tape

Government mandates can’t hurt the economy if they’re stuck in legislative gridlock.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Republicans have found a seemingly foolproof tool for eliminating governmental red tape: congressional gridlock.

U.S. House GOP leaders released the economic portion of their new policy agenda on Tuesday, which would give Congress the power to approve or reject regulations that would have a significant effect on businesses. “If the proposals that are cooked up in these bureaucracies are really so important, then let the people’s elected representatives decide,” Speaker Paul Ryan said during a press conference held outside of the Department of Labor in Washington. “No major regulation should become law unless Congress takes a vote.”

“The burden should not be on the people to justify themselves to Washington,” Ryan added. “The burden should be on Washington justify itself to the people.” The proposal builds on a theme for House Republicans, who have sought to rein in what they see as executive overreach by the Obama administration and reassert congressional authority. But rather than taking back a power the executive has grabbed from lawmakers, as they’ve tried to do by suing the administration over Obamacare and blocking the president’s executive actions on immigration, this plan seeks a new role for Congress in promulgating regulations under laws that the House and Senate have previously passed. And Congress being Congress, this would likely have the practical impact of blocking major regulations for as long as Republicans maintain control on Capitol Hill.

The bigger challenge—one Ryan and his colleagues did not address—is getting the proposal, known as the REINS Act, enacted in the first place. The GOP House majority has passed versions of the bill several times in the last few years only to see it stall in the Senate. Given its restriction on executive authority, it is bill that any president would be unlikely to sign. Certainly not Hillary Clinton, who supports the kind of environmental-, financial-, and consumer-protection regulations that Republicans want to eliminate. And, given his authoritarian tendencies, probably not Donald Trump either. (Ryan would only say he was “confident” Trump was onboard with the GOP’s desire to reduce regulation generally.)

Like the national-security agenda unveiled last week, the House GOP’s anti-regulatory plan is an affirmation of party orthodoxy. Among more than 100 individual proposals are calls to loosen environmental and energy regulations, roll back mandates on financial institutions in the Dodd-Frank law, and scrap the Labor Department’s recent overtime rule. In addition to requiring a congressional vote on regulations that would cost the economy more than $100 million, the plan would cap the amount of money federal agencies could spend to enforce regulations. And the GOP task force’s 67-page report also revives proposals to combat “baseless lawsuits” and “union favoritism.”

The economic plan was also a throwback in another way: Rather than lionize the innovation of the sharing economy, Republicans spent more time talking up mom-and-pop small businesses. While it did come out against the FCC’s net-neutrality rules as over-regulating the Internet, the report made only brief mentions of companies like Uber and Airbnb, which in recent years have become go-to exemplars for GOP politicians. “This isn’t about the next billion dollar Silicon Valley start-up, necessarily,” Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina said at the press conference. He instead cited lawn-mowing companies and sandwich makers as businesses that would be helped by Republican policies.

In the past, Republicans have centered their agenda on concrete policies. For years, they touted support for the Keystone pipeline as a way to highlight bureaucratic foot-dragging in Washington. Other times it was specific Obamacare mandates, or EPA overreach that, they argued, was holding the economy back. In framing their latest proposal around a process—how regulations are approved—the GOP chose to look inward and focus on government reform.

If it ever came to pass, this legislation would almost certainly be a first step toward reducing the scope of federal regulations that get added to the books. But as congressional Republicans struggle to adapt to the elevation of Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee, the focus on executive authority is also a bit of a tell. If Paul Ryan thought he’d have an ally in the White House in a few months’ time, why would he be so intent on limiting his power?