The fight over regulations, and why it’s important to you

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By Consumers Union on Friday, January 27th, 2012

by Ami Gadhia and Jean Halloran

You may have heard a lot recently about Washington D.C. and its ‘regulations’ – probably not much of it good.

Politicians and others have been talking about doing away with federal regulations, and the Senate is set to consider several bills that will make it a lot tougher for these rules be put in place. But if these bills pass, it will become almost impossible to adopt common sense consumer protections, and your health and safety will be at risk.

Essentially, regulations are how federal agencies carry out their responsibilities as directed by Congress. For instance, Congress may pass a law directing the Food and Drug Administration to take steps to make our produce safer, but these laws usually only set out broad goals.

To reach those goals, regulations – or rules – have to be written. In this instance, FDA will spell out the specific steps food producers need to take to keep our produce free from bacteria that can make us sick. Before being adopted, these rules undergo public review and comment, so anyone can weigh in.

While not all regulations work to protect consumers, there are many important rules that help keep our food, toys, and cars safe, that oversee our financial products, and that help keep our air clean.  Without these types of rules, the marketplace could be a virtual free-for-all when it comes to your safety and getting a fair deal:

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission makes sure children’s toys are tested for lead and other safety concerns before they reach store shelves and kids’ hands.
  • USDA regulations make sure food processors and meat producers keep their facilities clean, so bugs like Salmonella and E. coli in chicken or beef don’t make us sick, or worse.
  • Health insurance companies have to give you understandable information free of double-speak, so you can make better choices about your health coverage.
  • The EPA monitors drinking water for the presence of toxic chemicals and sets limits on air pollution from industrial and commercial sources.

And important new rules are on the table. Among them: making sure medical devices like pacemakers and replacement hips are traceable so if there’s a recall patients can be easily notified, and allowing you to take your mobile phone or device with you when changing wireless companies, so you can shop for a better deal.

But late last year the House of Representatives passed three bills that would create enormous hurdles for federal agencies issuing regulations. And the Senate is slated to take them up soon.

Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, opposes these bills because they would undermine standards that keep our air and water clean, our food, drugs, cars, and other products safe, and our marketplace fair. To subject these rules to second-guessing would not only be wasteful; it could be damaging or even deadly. We urge consumers to join us as we work against these bills:

  • The Regulatory Accountability Act (H.R. 3010, S. 1606) would require an agency adopt the least-costly rule, unless it can show both a compelling need to protect public health and safety and benefits that justify the additional costs. While this may sound good in theory, in reality a rule could only require a toy manufacturer to warn against a particular hazard, instead of designing the safety problem out of the toy in the first place.
  • The REINS Act, Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny, (H.R. 10/S. 299) would force Congress to vote on all new rules having an annual economic impact of $100 million or more. Agencies could implement only those rules approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the President within an implausibly tight deadline of 70 legislative days. Rules that are not approved by then would be automatically rejected. Not only does Congress already have the ability to determine what regulations should look like when it passes a law, it also has the power to undo a rule that both chambers find objectionable. This bill also places an unrealistic burden on Congress to consider and vote on the 50-100 major rules agencies typically finalize each year.
  • The Regulatory Flexibility Act (H.R. 527, S. 1938) would require all regulations that might conceivably have even an indirect impact on small businesses to undergo additional and unnecessary analyses. Virtually any action an agency proposes – even guidance designed to help a business comply with a rule – could be subject to a lengthy regulatory process. This bill could make it difficult for federal agencies to protect the public and respond to new safety hazards.

We will continue to keep you informed as we work to fight against these damaging measures, and hope you will join us in the battle for fair and commonsense marketplace rules.

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