By John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council
No legislative hearings. No expert witnesses. No factual record. Fewer than 40 minutes of debate by nine members of Congress.
That’s all it took for 250 members of the House of Representatives to vote to block EPA from implementing and enforcing standards to reduce mercury, arsenic, lead, PCBs, dioxins and furans, and heavy metals from cement plants.
Toxic air pollution standards that EPA spent more than two years developing, informed by thousands of public comments and the expertise of agency scientists, engineers, analysts, attorneys and economists.
Standards that would reduce mercury emissions and deadly particulate matter by 92%. Safeguards that would avoid up to 2,500 premature deaths; 1,500 heart attacks; 17,000 cases of aggravated asthma; 32,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms; and 130,000 days when people would have missed miss work.
Now Tea Party activists, some corporate lobbyists and congressional conservatives want to make this cringe-worthy example of legislative irresponsibility the norm for voiding health, safety and environmental protections issued by federal agencies.
These groups are supporting legislation called the REINS Act, Regulations of the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2011, that would become an enabling weapon for big corporations and members of Congress seeking to kill health, safety and environmental protections with the same reckless disregard accorded EPA’s mercury pollution
As discussed in an overview of the REINS Act by my colleague, David Goldston, and my own Frequently Asked Questions about the legislation, the REINS Act represents a dream weapon for irresponsible corporations and congressional extremists seeking to eliminate health, safety and environmental protections through fundamentally anti-democratic maneuvers.
In a radical departure from longstanding constitutional norms and legislative practice, the REINS Act would allow health safeguards like the EPA mercury standards to be abolished as a result of just the reckless House vote described above.
In fact, if the REINS Act were the law today, EPA’s mercury standards would be extinguished already. Up to 25,000 Americans would die unnecessarily from cement plant poisons over the next decade. Over 160,000 pounds of
avoidable mercury pollution would threaten pregnant women, fetuses and children.
Americans would be exposed every year to cement plants’ emissions of the following air pollution levels that the EPA standards otherwise would prevent: 16,600 pounds of mercury, 10,600 tons of hydrocarbon pollution,11,500
tons of deadly particulate matter, 5,800 tons of acid gases, 110,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 6,600 tons of nitrogen oxides.
The EPA air toxic standards have not been blocked, however, because: (1) the REINS Act is not the law of the land today; (2) the Senate will not match the House’s reckless budget vote to block implementation and enforcement of the toxic standards; and (3) even if the Senate were to do so, the president very likely would veto such legislation without being overridden.
And that is why REINS Act proponents aim to eliminate all three barriers to anti-environmental extremism prevailing in Congress. As discussed more fully in my Frequently Asked Questions post, the REINS Act anoints one congressional chamber with the power to kill health, safety, welfare and environmental protections unilaterally. This
is how the REINS Act circumvents Senate opposition and presidential vetoes that today block anti-environmental rampages in the House.
The REINS Act elevates the Tea Party to King Kong of the Hill, where conservative extremists can swat down public safeguards like so many buzzing toy prop planes.
My colleague David Goldston has aptly described the anti-environmental binge that took over the House floor during consideration of the Continuing Resolution (H.R.1), with a riot of budget “riders” and Tea Party ideology run amok. David’s description of that spectacle applies equally to the treatment that agency health, safety and environmental protections would receive under the REINS Act:
Safeguards that had been in the works for years were summarily repudiated without
any hearings, committee action or the other processes that constitute “regular order” and are designed to ensure that Members actually know the consequences of what they’re voting on. All that was needed to rollback a protection was a complaint from an
industry that a Tea Party supporter accepted at face value and an
ideological impulse to cripple the government.
Clean Air standards to reduce mercury, arsenic and lead from cement plants were but one example of over a dozen environmental safeguards that suffered that same ignominious fate as amendments to the Republican spending bill.
But at least those amendments are highly unlikely to become law, since they are opposed by the public, Senate and president.
In a future with the radical REINS Act, however, none of that responsible opposition would matter. All it would take is the irresponsible action of the House, repeating its same indifference to hearings, experts, factual records, reasonable debate and public health.
With the recent cement mercury vote in the House, we have a concrete example — that we should disdain, not repeat — of how the REINS Act would make the legislative process more toxic along with America’s air and
John Walke is the Clean Air Director and a Senior Attorney with NRDC in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on reducing smog, soot and toxic air pollution from power plants, factories, vehicles and other sources.
This post originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard.