Effort to cut ‘red tape’ triggers lobbying battle in Senate

By Kevin Bogardus | 05/22/2015 07:03 AM EDT

A Senate subcommittee has become a K Street hot spot with its two top senators leading an effort to target troublesome regulations.

A Senate subcommittee has become a K Street hot spot with its two top senators leading an effort to target troublesome regulations.

Earlier this year, Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee, and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), the subpanel’s ranking member, launched the #CutRedTape Initiative. The lawmakers lamented how there was no central hub for complaints about federal rules — many of which they said were flowing into their offices from constituents who were bewildered by government bureaucracy.

In response, the senators set up a Web page to collect those grievances (Greenwire, March 26). They, along with Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), also wrote to dozens of organizations asking them for input on where the regulatory process had gone off the rails (E&E Daily, March 19).


Since then, business groups from a variety of industry sectors have sent the senators lists of their most hated regulations, as well as ways to streamline the rulemaking process.

Liz Gasster, vice president for the Business Roundtable — a trade association that represents the chief executives of the biggest U.S. companies — said the senators were asking the right questions of the regulatory system.

"I think it’s great that they reached out and asked the questions that they’re asking," Gasster said. "The questions that they asked are smart and are on the money."

Last month, the Business Roundtable sent in its own letter to the subcommittee, noting that "pending regulations of greatest concern include" U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, its forthcoming ozone standard, net neutrality, as well as rules stemming from the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank law. The business group also advocated for broader reforms to the federal rulemaking process, such as using cost-benefit analysis and reviewing past regulations.

Gasster said her group was not against all regulations but rather for more effective rules.

"We are interested in the process reforms that can lead to smarter regulation," said the Business Roundtable executive. "What are the kind of incremental changes of how we regulate in this country that can lead to better results for everyone?"

The roundtable is one of many business groups that have written into the subcommittee in response to its #CutRedTape Initiative.

The National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter earlier this month to Lankford, Heitkamp and other senators on the full Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The group cited several rules as challenging, from EPA’s boiler MACT regulation to the hydraulic fracturing standards fashioned by the agency and the Bureau of Land Management.

"Manufacturers look forward to a day when our regulatory system is a competitive advantage for our country, instead of unnecessarily costly, inefficient, adversarial and a barrier to business formation," said Jay Timmons, NAM’s president and CEO, in the letter.

Other groups have written to the senators about regulations, as well.

The American Forest & Paper Association discussed how government treats biomass and formaldehyde, as well as EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ "Waters of the U.S." rule in a letter dated May 1.

The American Gas Association also took aim at the WOTUS proposal and at various permitting rules and guidance offered by the White House Council on Environmental Quality on the National Environmental Policy Act in its own letter from last month.

The National Mining Association sent a list of regulatory concerns to the subcommittee, expressing worries over many of the same EPA rules (E&E Daily, May 8).

The #CutRedTape online portal has also attracted some attention. D.J. Jordan, a spokesman for Lankford, said so far the portal has received 98 submissions that touch on several different agencies.

"The portal offers a uniquely direct channel by which to tell Senators Lankford and Heitkamp and the Committee about regulations that are problematic to small businesses, and the response so far has been promising," Jordan said in an email.

In a statement to Greenwire, Heitkamp said "federal regulations keep our water safe, protect consumers, and support our economy, but it’s no surprise to anyone that there are also some regulations that have become burdensome."

"That’s where our #CutRedTape Initiative comes in. Sen. Lankford and I have heard from many individuals, businesses, and workers so far about their ideas to make federal regulations more effective and efficient, and we hope to hear from even more people. The more stories we get about how federal regulations are directly impacting real people, the more we can do to improve the regulatory process and make it work better," Heitkamp said.

‘We wanted to make sure that they heard the other side’

Yet Lankford and Heitkamp haven’t just heard from industry lobbyists on K Street. Public interest activists and unions also shared letters with the lawmakers in response to their initiative.

"We hope the subcommittee does have good intentions and they do want to get a complete picture of regulations’ impact on citizens," said Celia Wexler, senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at the Union for Concerned Scientists.

Wexler’s group sent in its own letter to the senators to highlight "why protective rules, implemented by federal agencies in a timely fashion, have real-world impacts both on our members and the larger American public."

"We wanted to make sure that they heard the other side and not just from business groups who complain about regulations," Wexler said.

Other groups or individuals who want to defend federal rules have been in touch with the subcommittee, as well.

In one letter, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, noted how life-saving regulations have been delayed while the predicted costs to business from rules have been overstated at times.

The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, the Center for Effective Government and the Center for Progressive Reform all made similar points in their own letters to the senators: Regulations, many of which have been stalled by the government, can protect the environment and public health.

Ronald White, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government, said it was "important" that public interest groups weigh in with the subcommittee.

"It was important to weigh in so the conversation about ‘regulatory reform’ wouldn’t be one-sided and dominated by industry," White said.

Gasster with the Business Roundtable said she saw the flow of letters into the subcommittee not as lobbying but rather as "information-gathering" by the senators.

"I think of it as more of information-gathering," she said. "We’re solicited to opine."

Lankford has sought to make regulatory reform one of his pet causes in the Senate.

He has made the case in public several times that the process needs to change, including in remarks to the Heritage Foundation this week, and even in an interview broadcast on the Periscope and Meerkat apps (E&E Daily, May 7). Lankford has also written to certain agencies asking them to review their own rules as part of the effort (E&E Daily, May 15).

Some from government watchdog groups are wary of the initiative. White said he sees business groups’ pushing for reforms to the regulatory process as a move to stop agencies from issuing new rules.

"I think they are trying to game the system to tilt the process toward their favor," White said. "They now have allies in both the House and the Senate, who are in the majority, and they see this as their opportunity to further their agenda and stop agencies from implementing regulations."