The Senate voted to overturn an Obama administration rule Thursday aimed at preventing coal-mining operations from dumping waste into nearby waterways, the first of nearly half-a-dozen rule reversals headed to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature this month.
Also on Thursday, the House backed a separate resolution doing away with extended background checks for gun purchases by disabled Social Security recipients mentally incapable of managing their own affairs.
The Senate’s 54-to-45 approval of their measure, which Mr. Trump has pledged to sign, undoes an Interior Department rule barring coal-mining companies from conducting any activities that could permanently pollute streams and other sources of drinking water.
The measure, earlier passed by the House, takes advantage of the Congressional Review Act, a rarely used piece of legislation that congressional Republicans have pledged to use to overturn a series of what they view as objectionable regulations issued in the final days of the Obama administration.
One targeted Mr. Obama-era regulation would restrict methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal land, and another would require federal contractors to self-certify that they comply with U.S. labor laws.
The Senate also took up a resolution, which the House passed 231 to 191 on Wednesday, to reverse new Securities and Exchange Commission rules that oil, gas and mining companies divulge more information about business payments they make to foreign governments. The SEC requirement is part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill.
The CRA gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to nullify federal regulations by a majority vote if the president supports the move. Only one rule, an ergonomics regulation adopted under then-President Bill Clinton, has ever been overturned under the 1996 act.
The White House also endorsed overturning a rule allowing the Social Security Administration to provide certain records on people with a history of mental problems for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as well as rules on government methane emissions and contractor labor certifications. That measure passed the House 235-to-180 Thursday afternoon.
“The Administration strongly supports the actions taken by the House to begin to nullify unnecessary regulations imposed on America’s businesses,” the White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy. “The regulations that the House is voting to overturn under the Congressional Review Act have established burdensome compliance regulations that force jobs out of our communities and discourage doing business in the United States.”
Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the votes “targeting specific rules and stripping them from the books” would help deliver on Republicans’ pledge to drain “the swamp” in Washington.
“Every single one of these will be gone,” Mr. McCarthy vowed after listing the five regulations. “With a vote in the House, a vote in the Senate and the signature of President Trump, we’ll get rid of every one of these job-killing and destructive regulations.”
The “stream protection rule,” issued by the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, has been a priority for repeal among GOP lawmakers since it was finalized in December.
It not only stops mining firms from polluting waterways, but it also requires them to restore streams outside permit areas that have been damaged by mining operations. Companies would have to establish a 100-foot-wide corridor of native species along stream banks. While environmentalists had praised the rule, Republicans said it amounted to an effort to undermine energy companies and kill off jobs.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Thursday in a statement that the regulation “actually creates problems, costing jobs and completely reworking regulatory programs within the agency.” Reversing it, he added, was part of the GOP’s broader effort “to end the War on Coal and undo eight years of burdensome regulations” adopted during Mr. Obama’s tenure.
But the move has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists, who have accused its supporters of placing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry above the health and safety of affected communities.
“This attempt to scrap the Stream Protection Rule is a clear case of putting polluters’ profits ahead of the basic well-being of vulnerable communities, and we must do everything we can to stop it,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement. “No matter who you are or where you live, you have a right to clean water - but this shameless attack puts families and communities at risk.”
The four Democratic senators who voted to overturn the rule — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — face re-election in conservative-leaning states next year.
Oil companies complained about the new SEC transparency rule, which advocates say would curb corruption. The companies said it puts them at a competitive disadvantage to foreign firms and would be unduly expensive.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview that large oil and gas companies compete with state-owned companies that do not have disclosure requirements and that the SEC rule would allow those companies to win contracts after seeing what U.S. firms pay.
Republicans appeared to be targeting environmental regulations, but they also addressed the priorities of gun rights groups and the broader business community. While Mr. Obama’s administration had authorized the sharing of information on those receiving federal disability payments in an effort to ensure those with mental illnesses were identified in gun sellers’ routine background checks, critics suggested it would prevent some Americans from lawfully obtaining firearms.
Meanwhile, the House vote to repeal the background check regulation was 235-180.
The vote represents the first steps toward strengthening gun ownership under Mr. Trump.
The background checks rule established the criteria the Social Security Administration will follow when forwarding names for the criminal background check system.
Those fitting the criteria have a mental disorder so severe that they cannot work and need a representative to manage their benefits. The administration projected that the regulation would affect about 75,000 beneficiaries.
Gun rights groups and advocates for the disabled supported the repeal effort.
The House on Thursday also approved by 236-to-187 a resolution to overturn a requirement that firms seeking federal contracts of more than $500,000 to identify any labor laws they have violated in the past three years. In October, a federal judge blocked initial implementation of the regulation.
While the resolutions’ swift passage has pleased many industry officials, clean-energy groups said the actions have introduced uncertainty into the market.
“From a regulatory perspective, it is terrifying because we don’t know what the long-term implications of the passage of [Congressional Review Act] resolutions would be, given the lack of legal history and judicial history about interpretations of the resolutions,” said Arvin Ganesan, former congressional liaison at the EPA and now vice president for federal policy at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association.
One critical question is what the CRA means in a clause that says once a regulation is revoked, no new “substantially similar” regulation can be adopted.
Mr. Ganesan said there is no legal history, precedent or treatise to interpret that.
“It’s the lack of clarity on what the passage would mean from a regulatory perspective” that is worrying so many environmentalists, Mr. Ganesan added.
Associated Press contributed.
First Published February 3, 2017 12:00 AM