Chamber Lobbyist Falls Through the Looking Glass at House Subcommittee Hearing

Today’s House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing provided a strange, “through-the-looking-glass” moment when William Kovacs, a top lobbyist for the U.S Chamber of Commerce, blurted out the current regulatory process is too slow, and implored the members to speed things up to permit new construction projects. He complained the process takes far too long and is “harming our ability to grow our economy.”

Surprising commentary because Kovacs and the Chamber have been spearheading a radical, anti-regulatory agenda pushing lawmakers to slow or shut down entirely the government’s ability to put forth critical protections for the American public.

Kovacs’ testimony is a model of self-contradiction. On the one hand, he encourages agencies to dispense with burdensome environmental reviews that agencies must conduct by law when authorizing permits for new construction projects. He goes so far as to suggest the creation of a special regulatory body called the “Office of Permit Efficiency” which would help expedite the permitting process.

However, on the other hand he had a field day lambasting agencies for producing what he thinks are cursory and inadequate assessments of a regulation’s cost to the economy. For example, Kovacs would like to see agencies include “indirect” impacts of their regulations on small businesses when they conduct economic impact assessments.

In practice, this requirement would force an agency like the Mine Safety Health Administration, whose primary function is to ensure the safety of mine workers, to determine what the impact of a new mine safety rule would be on a small business office supply company that does nothing more than provide the agency with paper. In fact, it would probably also slow down the constructing permitting process Kovacs claims to want to speed up.

Asking agencies to engage in speculative determinations like “indirect” impacts could only result in more delays. The fact delays like these that allow corporate interests to avoid regulation seem to fit well in Kovacs’ and the Chamber’s Wonderland quite nicely. In the real world, not so much.

Kovacs also took the EPA to task for engaging in “sue and settle” rulemaking where private citizens exercise their legal right to force agencies to engage in rulemaking. The most renowned example of this is the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachussetts v. EPA where the Court held that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants.

Apparently, Kovacs objects to citizens having the fundamental right to petition an intransigent government agency to act in the public interest when mandated by Congress. He’d rather see courts not step in to force agencies to do their duty in protecting the public from harm.

However, in yet another contradiction,when agencies do their job and decide to issue rules, Kovacs testified in favor of having courts step in and closely scrutinize agency compliance with the rulemaking process. Kovacs repeatedly criticized courts for affording too much deference to agency decisions when making rules, and insisted that legislation is necessary to enhance judicial review.

Simply put, Kovacs wants courts to step in when agencies issue rules that impact corporate interests, but wants them to stay out of telling agencies to issue rules that protect the public.

A principled stance for Kovacs and the Chamber would require them to advocate a streamlined regulatory process for the permitting of new construction projects and the EPA regulation of air quality standards, as well as consistent standards for judicial review.

But instead,  Kovacs and the Chamber adhere to a principle better suited for Wonderland: streamlined regulations and judicial review are good when they’re good for business and bad when they’re bad for business.  More tea,  Alice?