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Jan Lee headshot

Congress Taps Little-Used Law to Repeal Obama Regulations

By Jan Lee

Last week Congress began employing a new tactic to repeal a slew of environmental regulations that Barack Obama implemented in the last few years of his presidency.

Their success hinges on a little-used law that allows Congress to "disapprove" any recently passed regulation with a simple majority and the sitting president's approval.

The 1996 Congressional Review Act (CRA) presents a candy store of opportunities for the Republican-led Senate and House, ranging from environmental regulations to extended requirements for gun purchases for some individuals with mental disabilities.

Under the CRA, Congress can vote to repeal regulations that were passed after June 13, 2016. Also called the "midnight rule," the CRA has only been used once. In 2001, then-President George W. Bush disapproved an Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation related to standardizing the use of ergonomics in the workplace.

But by the end of last week, the House and Senate succeeded in voting for the repeal of five of some 50 rules currently on the chopping block, stripping away both civil and environmental protections.

One of the first regulations to be dumped was a rule preventing coal mining waste from being discharged into public waters. The stream protection rule would have also required new mining operations to develop a plan and a fund ahead of time to restore any streams that were polluted during operation.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the regulation an "attack against coal minors and their families." The repeal was 54-45, paving the way for a likely approval by President Donald Trump.

On the same day, the House voted to repeal a regulation that extended the screening process for individuals with mental disabilities seeking to buy a gun.

The Social Security gun rule, which was put in place following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, required the Social Security Administration to submit information for any recipient diagnosed with certain conditions who later sought to purchase a firearm.

The House voted to repeal the rule 235-180, and it is now awaiting ratification by the Senate.

Another regulation that came under fire in the House is the controversial "blacklisting"contractor rule, which placed contractors under an additional layer of scrutiny designed to block those who have legal violations on their record from being granted a federal contract until they have made changes to their operations.

The rule didn't actually blacklist contractors, but it did require applicants to address performance issues before being issued a new contract. The rule was voted down 236-187.

But the real bonus of the week for opponents of Obama's environmental legacy arrived on Friday with the repeal of the controversial methane waste rule, which required oil and gas companies contracting on federal and tribal lands to reduce methane leaks by capturing the greenhouse gas and reselling it.

Prior to the rule, there were no real restrictions against companies "flaring" or releasing methane as unburned gasses. The repeal punts the issue back to states, many of which have failed to implement stronger climate regulations.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the repeal was an effort to balance overregulation of the energy market. "There are less costly and more efficient ways to achieve environmental protection without devastating American jobs and energy production," McCarthy said.

But by not capturing methane gasses, contractors are actually "squandering" lost revenue, the technical consulting firm ICF concluded in a 2015 study on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund. The report determined that the cost to taxpayers could be as much as $330 million when oil and gas companies don't take precautions to limit the loss of natural gas at the extraction site.

The House also disapproved a rule that required companies to disclose when they pay foreign governments taxes or fees for extraction rights. The Security and Exchange Commission's landmark regulation was supposed to increase transparency in the oil, gas and mining sectors, especially in countries where human rights were a concern.

Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for U.S. secretary of state, was a chief opponent of the rule -- which not only required his former employer, ExxonMobil, to disclose payments to foreign governments, but was also designed to increase scrutiny in countries where slave labor was documented in the mining sector.

And the repeal of Obama-era environmental and civil protections likely aren't over. Although some Republicans did not condone the use of the CRA to repeal environmental rules, its proponents probably won't have a problem passing further changes. Trump has vowed to roll back as much as 75 percent of current business regulations.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection; 2) Flickr/Deb Nystrom

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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