The government shutdown has all but turned off the regulatory spigot, reducing the flow of new rules from federal agencies to a trickle. [WATCH VIDEO]
Regulators and proponents of stronger protections warn that rulemaking delays will jeopardize public safety and health. But some conservatives say the reprieve from red tape is welcome, even if it doesn’t last long.
“We’re very pleased that the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to wreck the U.S. economy with more and more heavy-handed and colossally expensive regulations has been put on hold,” said Myron Ebell, director of the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute’s energy and environment center.
“By and large, the people writing those regulations and trying to get them promulgated are not in the office,” he said.
Thousands of workers from U.S. regulatory agencies have been sent home indefinitely as Congress tries to reach an agreement on legislation to restart the government. Several agencies are operating with fewer than 10 percent of their usual workforce.
Regulatory activities have fallen by the wayside, as remaining workers must limit their focus to the most crucial functions to protect lives and property.
The effects can already be seen in the Federal Register, where new regulations and draft rules are published daily.
Monday’s edition of the Federal Register — the last one published before the shutdown — clocked in at more than 400 pages and contained 40 rules or proposals for the public to look over, covering everything from fees charged by U.S. Marshals to protecting habitat for sea turtles.
Friday’s edition was less than a third the size, and had just six rules. All but one was from the National Marine Fisheries Service, where workers are allowed to continue writing rules to prevent overfishing.
More than 100 proposed regulations already forwarded to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for approval are also frozen.
OIRA administrator Howard Shelanski told Congress last week that the shutdown would diminish the office’s working personnel from 40 to two.
“I will call back people as needed to meet court deadlines, but all of our rulemaking review will certainly stop during a period of shutdown,” he testified.
Defenders of the rules say that nothing less than the wellbeing of the American people is at stake if lawmakers are unable to end the budget impasse.
“Regulations are vital for everything from protecting the environment, to maintaining public health, to ensuring workplace safety,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “Anything that slows down the rulemaking process … is bad for American workers, consumers and families.”
An extended federal government closure would delay work a wide array of rules now in the works, including at the Labor Department, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Republicans in Congress have long viewed the EPA with scorn, and some indicated a sense of relief that regulators would not be at their desks.
“I’m no fan of the EPA at all. So they certainly can’t perform any of their mischief if 93 percent of them are furloughed,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said. “When they’re furloughed they can’t do as much damage.”
He added that businesses in his state are “glad they don’t have the EPA constantly issuing new regulations.”
All but about 6 percent of the EPA’s 16,000 workers are being furloughed as result of the shutdown.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she found it “curious” that so few of the agency’s workers were deemed “essential” enough to remain on the job.
“It causes you to wonder — what are they doing with their time and money?” she said.
When the shutdown hit Tuesday, the EPA was busy working on series of contentious regulations as part of President Obama’s initiative to combat climate change, including rules that would limit emissions from new and existing power plants, clarify its regulatory jurisdiction over smaller bodies of water and reduce smog.
Proponents say the measures are crucial to protecting public health.
“I’m worried about everything being delayed,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “Every single thing.”
The shutdown will also affect a slew of other agencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, is stopping its work to track the spread of the flu and outbreaks.
“CDC had to furlough 8,754 people. They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow,” the agency’s director Tweeted after the shutdown took effect. “Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe.”
The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is furloughing all but 230 of its 2,235 workers, while the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is keeping only 41 percent of its staff to respond to urgent matters.
Routine inspections and other agency functions have ceased, including at the Food and Drug Administration, which is calling off routine food safety facilities inspections and stopping laboratory research.
“You don’t have the same oversight that you would when the government’s fully funded,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “It definitely increases the risk.”
Rachel Weintraub, the institute’s legislative director, bristled at the idea that the stoppage of regulations is a positive development. She pointed to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is down to 23 staffers from its usual 540.
“It is a dangerous statement to make that there’s any benefit to regulators who exist to protect consumers to ensure their health, safety, fairness and transparency aren’t able to do their jobs,” Weintraub said. “There is no silver lining at all.”
Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), however, said there is some truth to the suggestion that business groups are partly relieved about the regulatory shutdown. Lincoln, who works with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), said no serious groups want to see an end to all government regulations.
That said, “If they think [the shutdown] potentially it means a week without regulations, they’re thinking, ‘Great, I have a week to catch up,” she said.