Over the past several months, the Tea Party and their allies in Congress have voted more than 160 times to block public health and environmental standards. Now they are attacking the government’s ability to ever put safeguards in place.
Their weapon of choice is the REINS Act, which a House Committee approved this week. The bill would prevent any new effort to protect the public from taking effect if even one chamber of Congress objected.
This constitutes the most fundamental change in the way safeguards are created in more than 100 years. If this radical approach became law, American families would be exposed to whatever corporations wanted to put in our food, air, water, or children’s toys.
Lawmakers opposed to environmental protections would have a field day blocking safeguards they didn’t like. Some members, like Representative Geoff David (R-KY), the main sponsor of the bill, agreed that a goal of the REINS Act is to “stifle the EPA.”
But the EPA isn’t the only agency in the crosshairs. This bill would take away authority from the experts at the federal agencies that keep salmonella and listeria out of our food, prohibit melamine in infant formula, and exclude lead and mercury from toys. The law is so sweeping it would also handcuff experts who regulate mortgage-lending practices, worker safety, and access for disabled Americans.
What the bill says is agencies like the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration will no longer be able to do their jobs. Instead, every major decision will be second-guessed by Congress through political debate. In one fell swoop, the REINS Act would rewrite every major protective law on the books today, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, to undo enforceable requirements that the public be protected.
Do you want Representatives to decide what level of mercury pollution endangers our health or you want medical experts to make this assessment? When it comes to establishing new guidelines for offshore oil drilling, should the rules be written by lawmakers—the primary recipients of $175 million worth of lobbying from the oil and gas industry in 2009—or should engineers determine what is safe?
The vast majority of Americans want the experts to do the job. A June poll for the American Lung Association of likely 2012 voters from all parties, for instance, found that 75 percent support the EPA's effort to set stronger smog standards and 66 percent believe that EPA scientists--not Congress--should establish clean air standards. A survey conducted in October by Public Policy Polling for NRDC found that 78 percent of Americans want the EPA to hold polluters accountable for what they release into the community.
But proponents of the REINS Act claim safeguards hurt the economy. They forget we’ve already tried the hands-off approach. For nearly a decade, everything from financial markets to the oil industry was stripped of regulations. We ended up with the mortgage meltdown and the biggest oil spill in US history. Still, the Tea Party wants to make deregulation the default mode of government.
With the REINS Act, they would create a fundamental reshaping of the way government operates. For more than a century, Congress has established federal agencies and given them the authority to make decisions to protect the public. This system recognizes that deep technical expertise is sometimes needed to implement the laws Congress passes.
The REINS Act would diminish the role of experts and put politicians—and their polluting donors—in the driver’s seat.
This would be a boon for dirty industries, but it goes against the public interest. Americans value government’s ability to protect us from contaminants in our food, toxins in our children’s toys, and pollution in our air. Voters deserve to know just how far the Tea Party will go to thwart these protections and give their polluting friends a free pass.