Industry Interests Testify in Support of Bill Targeting Public’s Right to Hold Government Accountable

The House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, held a hearing Wednesday on proposed legislation that would limit the rights of citizens to enforce legal deadlines and hold government agencies accountable when they fail to perform the tasks assigned to them by Congress. Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced identical versions of the bill, entitled the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, in the House and Senate back in May. 

Testimony provided at the hearing confirms our concerns that the legislation is an anti-regulatory measure drafted by industry groups who wish to undermine and delay important protections. Disguised as a bill to increase transparency, the bill would impose unnecessary constraints on an agency’s ability to settle a lawsuit and grant third parties practically unlimited rights to intervene in the negotiations.  

The majority members on the subcommittee invited William L. Kovacs, Senior Vice President of Environment, Technology, and Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to testify about a Chamber report alleging that public interest groups increasingly sue agencies and then enter into private settlement negotiations on how and when an agency will issue a rule, excluding the businesses impacted by the rule from the conversation. However, this assertion is false.

Under current law, when an executive branch agency fails to issue a standard that Congress told it to issue or misses a deadline that Congress set, members of the public, individually or as a group, may sue the agency to compel it to obey the law. Like any lawsuit, the parties may sometimes – but not always – agree to settle the case. Once a settlement is finalized, any rule an agency issues as part of that agreement is subject to the same notice-and-comment procedures as any other rule.  A settlement does not change the agency’s procedural obligations. It simply requires the agency to perform an action that Congress had already required it to do by law. 

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) explained that the Chamber report was prepared by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that received $700,000 from Koch Industries and its affiliates. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) later added that the proposed legislation was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group directly tied to Koch Industries. He said the bill should be renamed the Sunset for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act because "the purpose is to paralyze the enforcement of clean air and clean water legislation and rules and regulations."

Laying bare the claims of anti-regulatory groups, John Walke, Clean Air Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, testifying before the subcommittee, said "Congress recognized there was a powerful incentivizing role to ensure public safeguards by giving citizens an even-handed right to hold agencies accountable." Walke further described this right as "a laudatory feature of our democracy." The proposed legislation would severely limit this right and render it essentially meaningless for everyday citizens.

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