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It's The EPA and OSHA, Stupid!

This is the second in an occasional series examining how Republican control of Congress might affect policy debates in the next two years.

Democrats are warning that if Republicans capture the House—and perhaps also the Senate—in this November’s election, they would abolish cabinet departments, repeal Obamacare, and privatize social security. They might want to do these things, but they won’t be able to overcome a Senate filibuster or a presidential veto. What they will be able to do, however, is undermine the work of regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Obama administration has appointed good people to these agencies and increased their funding, and they are beginning to revive after being crippled during George W. Bush’s presidency. A Republican Congress wouldn’t be able to close them down, but it could make life very difficult for them to function by cutting their funding. That’s exactly what happened after the Republicans captured the Congress in November 1994 when Bill Clinton was president.

The newly minted Republican majority in the House, led by Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, immediately passed the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act, which contained sections specifically aimed at curbing regulatory agencies. The Private Property Reform Act forced the government to reimburse property owners for any loss suffered from regulations; the Regulatory Reform and Relief Act and the Risk Assessment and Cost Benefit Act created a labyrinth of appeals and studies that any new regulation would have to pass through. As the authors of a Contemporary Regulatory Policy put it, they “mired regulatory agencies in a procedural quagmire.”

In the Senate, Democrats killed the bill by threatening a filibuster, but the effort put the agencies on the defensive. In the budget that year, the Republicans—not constrained by a filibuster—were able to get their way. They cut the EPA’s overall budget by 25 percent and cut its critical enforcement budget by 40 percent and put 17 riders on the budget bill limiting the EPA’s ability to police industries. They cut OSHA’s already barebones budget by 16 percent and put a rider prohibiting OSHA from adopting new rules on ergonomic industries (like carpal tunnel syndrome) that had first been proposed in 1990 by George H.W. Bush’s administration.

When Clinton vetoed the Republican budget, the Republicans forced the government to shut down that fall. Clinton eventually won the political battle over the shutdown by demonstrating that Republican tax cuts for the rich were almost exactly equal to their proposed reductions in Medicare, but when the dust cleared from the budget battle, funding for the EPA and OSHA had been cut, and OSHA had been forced to suspend its attempt to enforce standards on ergonomic injuries. EPA director Carol Browner complained that from October 1995 to February 1996, EPA inspections had been reduced by 40 percent because of budget cuts. And there’s a clear lesson there. If you don’t have the people to enforce regulations on pollution or worker injury, it doesn’t matter how tough the rules are.

After Clinton easily won re-election in 1996, and the Democrats won back some of their seats (although not a majority) by running against the Republican leadership in Congress, the administration was able to get back some of the regulatory funding that had been lost, but even at the end of Clinton’s two terms, the agencies were not operating at full speed. In 2000, there were actually less people working in OSHA than there were in 1975. And an ergonomics rule had still not been adopted. (Clinton proposed it finally as a “midnight regulation” after the November election, but George W. Bush promptly threw it out.)

A similar tale could be told of what happened in other regulatory agencies after the Republicans won Congress in November 1994.  And the same thing could happen next year if the Republicans win back the House—or the House and Senate—this November. That’s reason enough to worry about the outcome of the coming election. 

Read Jonathan Cohn's introduction to the series, explaining why a Republican Congress might not be the end of the world.