The Congressional Review Act: What to Know Before the New Congress Begins

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The Constitution’s Legislative Vesting Clause stipulates, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Yet Democratic and Republican presidents routinely appropriate Congress’s legislative powers by acting through administrative agencies to promulgate regulations that have the force of law via the administrative rule making process. Congressional deference to the executive branch in this process empowers bureaucrats in federal agencies to issue regulations that impact every area of public policy.

Sadly, both parties have been responsible for this erosion of the separation of powers through Congress’ improper delegation of policy-making power to the Executive Branch. The administrative state, or, as some prefer to call it, the “regulatory state,” has essentially become a fourth branch of government. This is a faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy; what Hannah Arendt called the “rule by Nobody”:

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

The lack of accountability has led to an administrative state that has a major impact on Americans. The estimated cost of regulations annually in terms of compliance and implementation is $1.9 trillion. If the cost of regulations were its own economy, it would be the eighth-largest economy in the world. The cost of these regulations is passed on to businesses and consumers.

The Trump administration has put an emphasis on deregulation, particularly in the policy areas of healthcare and telecommunications. The administration has also rolled back excesses of the Obama administration’s radical environmental agenda. FreedomWorks Foundation’s Regulatory Action Center (RAC) has helped mobilize grassroots activists across the nation to support this deregulatory agenda. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the RAC has driven over 120,000 comments from activists urging the removal of existing regulation and opposing new ones.

Such an emphasis on deregulation has led to approximately eight regulations being cut for every new one implemented throughout the duration of the Trump administration. According to estimates from the White House Council of Economic Advisors, these cuts from the administration will increase the real income of Americans by $53 billion per year over the next decade.

Another avenue for deregulation has been the Congressional Review Act. Little known or used before the 115th Congress, which began in January 2017, the Congressional Review Act provides a way to target some federal agencies’ rules. The use of the Congressional Review Act by the 115th Congress to cancel regulations published in the final months of the Obama administration saved Americans $41 billion annually.

While the use of the Congressional Review Act was beneficial in the early days of the Trump administration by a Republican-controlled House and Senate to cancel rules issued within the preceding 60 session days in the Senate and 60 legislative days in the House as provided by the law, it may of course be used by Congress to cancel rules issued by federal agencies under a different set of circumstances, specifically, with a Democratic President and a Democratic-controlled House and Senate. The Congressional Review Act also includes an additional review period at the beginning of a new session of each chamber of Congress for final federal agency actions that are published within 60 session days and 60 legislative days of adjournment.

With the backdrop of a pandemic and a shifting congressional calendar, it is difficult to determine the exact date when federal agencies’ actions subject to the Congressional Review Act could carry over into the 117th Congress. Technically, the members of the Senate and Senate make the determination of the deadline. In practice, members have deferred to the parliamentarians of each chamber, although the determination of the parliamentarians is not binding.

Some deregulatory actions that could be vulnerable to the Congressional Review Act in the 117th Congress are the Navigable Waters Protection Rule (also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule), the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, and the modernization of regulations under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). These three examples, as well as many others not mentioned, were finalized after in April or after, which could be subject to additional review in the 117th Congress.

Of course, a regulation or guidance document issued by a federal agency that slips past the Congressional Review Act deadlines can be rolled back by an administration through the regular rulemaking process. Rolling back a regulation through the rulemaking process can take some time, however, whereas the avenue provided under the Congressional Review Act, if applicable to the regulation, significantly speeds up the process. Additionally, if Congress cancels a regulation through the Congressional Review Act, the federal agency that published the regulation is prohibited from reissuing it in “substantially the same form.”

The Congressional Review Act: What to Know Before the New Congress Begins provides historical background on the Congressional Review Act. We review how the Congressional Review Act works, what congressional actions have occurred under the law, and the existing proposed changes to it.