WASHINGTON — A Republican-run House hearing on eliminating federal regulations quickly erupted into partisanship Wednesday, as GOP lawmakers said many rules cost American jobs while Democrats insisted they protect public health, the environment and even national security.
The hearing witness, Obama administration chief regulatory official Cass Sunstein, insisted that rules are designed to protect the public and the economy, and are issued only after balancing benefits against the costs.
"Job creation is in the first sentence" of President Barack Obama's recent executive order to review all government regulations, Sunstein said.
The session by the Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee underscored the differences between the two parties, even though President Barack Obama issued an executive order last week ordering agencies to use the "least burdensome tools" when issuing regulations and to eliminate existing ones that are counterproductive.
GOP lawmakers challenged Sunstein on a range of rules, making clear that they have broad concerns about steps the administration is taking.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who chairs the full Energy and Commerce Committee, was worried about an Environmental Protection Agency plan to regulate emissions from large boilers that by court order may be issued soon. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, objected to a new federal agency overseeing health insurers created in the wake of last year's health care overhaul.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., asked about Obama's moratorium on offshore oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico after last year's giant oil spill, and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., complained about the EPA's revoking a permit allowing a mine in the state to operate.
"Sometimes regulations aren't worth the cost, which is just plain dumb," said Upton.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who heads the investigations panel, also went on the offensive, accusing the Obama administration of a "rush to regulate" and basing job-killing decisions on political correctness.
At one point, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked Sunstein to promise that "during this time of economic crisis, that you will use your power to make sure the administration doesn't put a stamp of approval on any regulation that costs American jobs?"
Gardner tried limiting Sunstein to a yes or no answer, but the administration official responded, " A yes answer would be preposterous. If there's a regulation that's saving 10,000 lives and costing one job, it's worth it."
Democrats argued that in many instances like the 2008 financial crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it was the lack of effective regulation that led to problems, not too much federal control.
"Regulations per se are not the problem. The mantra that regulations are inherently bad and kill jobs is wrong and dangerous," said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, the investigations subcommittee's top Democrat.
Added Rep. Henry Waxman of California, leading Democrat on the entire Energy committee, "Let's prune unnecessary regulations where we find them. But let's also not hesitate to regulate where needed to protect our economy and children's future."
The two sides' differing views have led many to believe it will be hard for them to agree on rules that should be rolled back.
"A lot of what each party may want to go after is supported by some set of the public," said Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation magazine, published by the Cato Institute, which favors limiting government's reach. He predicted numerous partisan clashes, "and in 2012 we'll have the election and see what happens."
Since Obama controls federal agencies and Democrats run the Senate, it will be tough for Republicans to force the administration to drop regulations the president likes. Either way, participants agree, the duel will have a distinct political flavor, with the GOP pushing for business interests' goals and Obama protecting Democratic constituencies like labor and environmental groups while also showing concern about stifling jobs.
"Clearly this White House is starting to think about 2012," when Obama faces re-election, said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which monitors the regulatory process.
In one sign of the administration's changed sensibilities, it bowed to industry pressure Tuesday and delayed a proposal to require companies to keep separate records on workplace musculoskeletal injuries.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has asked about 150 companies and trade groups for suggestions on which regulations to eliminate. He has yet to release any responses, but letters obtained by The Associated Press give a taste for the rules that business dislikes and Republicans might battle:
—The Associated Builders and Contractors, representing the construction industry, has complained about Obama administration policies and rules pressuring contractors to use union workers, eliminate workplace hazards and limit lead exposure.
—The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing a dozen carmakers, favors a single national fuel economy standard over conflicting state requirements. The group is also unhappy about forthcoming rules on ethanol, fuel economy labeling and visibility out the rear of vehicles.
—The National Association of Manufacturers cites a study claiming that regulations contribute to an 18 percent cost disadvantage U.S. companies face against other major countries. They say curbs on greenhouse gases, emissions from boilers and ozone pollution combined with other rules "could cost millions of jobs and weaken an economy in a still fragile recovery."
The government issues 3,000 or more regulations a year, though most are minor, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Ever since President Bill Clinton issued an executive order similar to Obama's, agencies have been required to evaluate their rules, but few are killed.
In a speech in November, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue said regulations cost Americans $1.75 trillion a year. Though he said many are necessary, he complained about a "regulatory tsunami" that is the country's "single biggest threat to job creation."
Democrats and their supporters say such claims are extreme and unfounded, underscoring the gulf between the two sides.
"Implementation of environment and health laws don't actually impose a big burden on the economy," said David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's an unproved big lie."