The upcoming vote on the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, H.R. 10, on the House floor will show clearly which members of Congress take seriously the legislative power vested in them by citizens under Article I of the United States Constitution.
Our foundational document establishes that it is our elected representatives in Congress who are entrusted with legislative power, but over decades much of that power has been delegated away to an ever-growing list of alphabet-soup federal agencies, empowered to write regulations that carry the force of law and have an enormous impact on every aspect of American life.
Complying with federal regulations cost American businesses $1.75 trillion in 2008 according to the Small Business Administration, more than Americans paid in individual and corporate income taxes combined. And there are early indications that the cost has continued to increase considerably under President Obama. The latest international economic freedom rankings from the Fraser Institute, based on 2009 data, show the United States dropping to the tenth freest economy in the world. For the first time ever we are behind Canada.
The 2010 election was a landslide of historic proportions and a decisive rejection of the Obama approach of larger, more intrusive government with higher spending and regulations to control our lives, families, and businesses. Yet the unchecked slippage of legislative power from its rightful place in Congress to the unaccountable world of federal agencies has allowed the agenda the American people rejected to continue advancing.
Examples abound. Cap and trade dead? No problem; Obama told us it was "just one way of skinning the cat." The EPA can, without Congress's permission, pursue the exact same emission targets rejected by the American people. The Orwellian Employee Free Choice Act, a union boss wish list, that crashed and burned last Congress? No worries; the NLRB is working hard to act as if it passed.
The FCC is regulating broadband Internet; the FDA is regulating nutritional supplements; the Army Corps and the EPA are massively expanding wetlands jurisdiction; ObamaCare glitches are being "corrected" with IRS and HHS rules - all without explicitly granted authority from Congress.
In every area of federal policy the country is moving left via regulations buried in the Federal Register instead of enacted laws debated openly in the halls of Congress, entirely ignoring the American people's message in the 2010 election. That's wrong. And even if you agree with these policies, you should be deeply concerned about what an administration you don't like will do with similarly unchecked power.
The REINS Act is the most important corrective to the trend that is eroding our system of representative government. It would merely require that economically significant regulation go through the constitutionally prescribed process for passing laws: approval by the House and Senate, and a presidential signature or veto override.
The REINS Act is not a silver bullet to stop all expensive federal regulations. There is no such thing. But what REINS would do is ensure that when a bad regulation takes effect citizens will know exactly who voted for it and will be able to hold them accountable.
With an expectation that regulations would come back to them for approval anyway, Congress would have a strong incentive to write better, more clearly-worded legislation and stay engaged in effective oversight and collaboration throughout the rulemaking process - no more broad, vague laws, like last year's health care and financial regulation laws, that delegate power to write all the really important details to unelected bureaucrats.
Agencies, in turn, would have a strong incentive to write the best possible rules that could withstand public scrutiny, lest their work face rejection in Congress.
Ultimately, the REINS Act is about whether we want to continue turning over control of our economic lives to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, or whether our elected representatives - under the watchful eyes of American citizens - will make these decisions themselves. We'll soon find out on the House floor how many members of Congress are willing to accept that responsibility.
Phil Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity and author of Democracy Denied: How Obama is Ignoring You and Bypassing Congress to Radically Transform America - and How to Stop Him.