Plan to Strengthen Congressional Review Advances

Published April 1, 1998

Before Congress gets around to reforming the nation’s regulatory structure–which pessimists say could take an eternity–it may at least tidy up its own house.

That is the goal of legislation, introduced last year by Representative Sue Kelly (R-New York), which is suddenly gaining ground in both houses of Congress. Kelly’s H.R 1704 would establish a new Congressional Office of Regulatory Analysis (CORA) to provide lawmakers with detailed information on the potential impact of new regulations issued by federal agencies.

Kelly contends that “Congress must use its authority to exercise stronger oversight of the regulatory state.” Her bill would transfer to CORA some regulatory review functions from the General Accounting Office (GAO), as well as some cost estimation functions currently handled by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). To carry out its duties, CORA would have broad authority to extract information from federal agencies and could avail itself of other agencies’ personnel in conducting its analyses.

The proposal to establish CORA is an expression of mounting frustration over Congress’ inability to rein-in federal regulations. Congress first acted on its frustration in March 1996, when the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) was enacted. An often overlooked, but nevertheless significant, provision–the Congressional Review Act (CRA)–gives Congress authority to prevent new regulations from taking effect. That new regulatory disapproval authority was designed to allow Congress to become an active participant in the federal regulatory process.

Yet by the time Kelly introduced her bill last year–14 months after SBREFA had been enacted–4,574 “non-major” final rules had been submitted to GAO and Congress, and 72 “major” rules, on which GAO is required to submit statements to Congress, had been issued. This veritable flood of new regulations produced not a single resolution of disapproval.

Kelly believes that Congress may be more willing to exercise its oversight responsibilities once it has in place “an expert body to fully analyze the potential impact of these new rules–both ‘major’ and ‘non-major.'” That “expert body,” Kelly believes, is CORA.

Representative George Gekas (?-????), chairman of the House subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, commented that H.R. 1704 “will put agencies on permanent notice that their rules and regulations must adhere tightly to statute and Congressional intent.” In order to keep CORA from becoming a bureaucracy all its own, Gekas attached to the bill an amendment that limits CORA’s appropriations to whatever OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is allotted.

After clearing Gekas’ subcommittee on February 25, H.R. 1704 will be passed on to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, where it is expected to be approved before being sent to the House floor for a vote in late March. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) has introduced a companion bill (S. 1675) in the Senate. Majority Leader Trent Lott is a cosponsor.

Though the administration has yet to express opposition to the CORA proposal, objections raised by environmental groups may presage trouble ahead. Green groups complain that CORA would simply duplicate what OMB already does and might politicize the rule-making process. In order to thwart administration efforts to torpedo the bill, Senate Republicans may attach S. 1675 to legislation the White House is eager to get passed–a common practice in the upper chamber. As for the House, H.R. 1704 will stand alone.