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By Dean Scott
Democrats hope to take over the U.S. House of Representatives after November’s election and extinguish what they view as an eight-year deregulatory crusade by Judiciary Committee Republicans.
If Republicans fail to maintain their majority, the Judiciary chairman’s gavel will likely pass to a Democrat itching for vigorous oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency and its efforts under President Donald Trump to dismantle regulations.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), is favored to take the helm should his party control the House.
“The question is, what [do] we do to make sure that EPA has the running room and the mandate to safeguard the water and air and do its job?” Nadler told Bloomberg Environment. “I want to see if we can mandate things that, at this point, may be discretionary.”
Republicans are bracing for losses among their ranks, though they’ve taken heart of late from a strong economy and a public-approval rating for Trump that has stabilized.
If the House stays Republican, the front-runner to lead the panel is Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who serves in Republican leadership as vice-chair of the House Republican Conference. Aides to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) dispute that assertion, noting Chabot’s much longer service in the House.
Collins—first elected in 2012—said not to expect the GOP to retreat from a deregulatory agenda under his leadership.
He is among several contenders for the chairmanship. Others include Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), first elected in the 2010 Republican wave, and Chabot, who retook his seat back in 2010. Chabot was first elected in 1994, lost his re-election bid in 2008, but was elected again two years later.
The 2018 midterm elections are seen as the Democrats’ best chance of taking back the House since the 2010 Republican takeover that put the Judiciary gavel in the hands of Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith.
Smith immediately put Obama administration environmental and other regulations in the crosshairs.
Over the past eight years Smith and his successor, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), both of whom are retiring this fall, steered deregulatory bills through committee and passed them on the floor, often over objections from Democrats and environmental groups. Senate passage of such bills has been another matter, a goal that has largely eluded Republicans and their industry backers.
The bill titles were sometimes vague—such as the broad Regulatory Accountability Act, to require the EPA and other agencies to give greater weight to costs in regulations. Other bills sought to rein in environmental settlements, such as Goodlatte’s Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act or the Sunshine for Regulations and Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, which Collins authored.
Collins said he sees himself as a foot soldier for such legislation—he also sponsored a bill known as the REINS Act require Congress to approve all new significant EPA and other regulations—and he has spent the last four years on the House Rules panel, which decides how bills are debated on the floor.
Chabot and Marino also co-sponsored the REINS Act.
Committee Democrats say Republicans have only themselves to blame for trying to radically revamp environmental legislation.
“None of it went anywhere,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who fought and lost a battle with Nadler for the ranking Judiciary post in December.
Lofgren, who hasn’t ruled out a rematch if Democrats win control of the House in November, told Bloomberg Environment she doesn’t expect Republicans to moderate their deregulatory efforts if they maintain House control.
“It’s what they’ve been doing for a long time so I don’t see any [reason] to think they’d be changing” their approach, Lofgren said. “If we end up taking control, I’m hoping to try to include them in some decision making.”
Nadler—who’s been in the House since 1993— is among the staunchest allies of environmental groups. He worked after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure environmental testing surrounding Ground Zero of the World Trade Center site and medical monitoring and treatment for emergency responders and cleanup workers who helped at the site, as well as the Pentagon and the crash site near Shanksville, Pa.
Nadler scored 100 percent for pro-environment votes in 2017 by the League of Conservation Voters and holds a 96 percent cumulative rating for his congressional career.
He said the Trump administration should expect an end to what has been “a rubber-stamp committee” in the eight years since the GOP took control of the House.
“We will do that oversight,” he said, adding that it would be “vigorous.”
Collins acknowledged Republicans who want to revamp the regulatory process haven’t figured out a way over their biggest hurdle: getting the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster threat.
“There are some good ideas where Republicans and Democrats could come together on, but we never get to the point of a conference committee” that could resolve those differences if both chambers would pass the bills, he said.
The Georgia Republican, who urges a return to the “lost art” of actually passing legislation, says he has some ideas for getting deregulatory legislation to Senate passage.
“I would like to try and break this logjam in the Senate,” Collins told Bloomberg Environment.
“One of the things I would do is have regular meetings with my Senate counterpart with the [Judiciary] chairmanship over there,” he said. “Let’s have a once-a-month or every-two-week meeting where we say ‘What’s your agenda, and what’s our agenda?’ and hammer out a deal.”
Collins has succeeded this year in moving bills to House passage or in some cases getting something signed into law.
He authored much of the Music Modernization Act (H.R. 5447) to revamp music licensing and copyright law; it passed the House unanimously April 25, but hasn’t reached the Senate floor. A prison reform bill (H.R. 5682) known as the FIRST STEP Act Collins introduced with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) passed the House May 22. The Senate version (S. 2795) has the backing of Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Marino, who authored the RAPID Act to streamline permitting, parts of which were incorporated in a permitting reform package signed into law in 2015, said he hasn’t rule out a run for chairmanship. More progress is needed, he said.
“Clearly we still need regulatory reform,” Marino, who chairs a judiciary regulatory reform subcommittee, told Bloomberg Environment. “The last couple of administrations have applied too many regulations that are job crushing.”
Chabot declined to be interviewed on his prospects.
Collins, Marino, and Chabot are in the running because so many Republican committee veterans are retiring, including the two most recent chairmen, Goodlatte and Smith. Also on the way out are Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Ted Poe (R-Texas).
To win the chairmanship, Collins and his competitors would still be leapfrogging several other Judiciary panel members, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), elected in 2006, and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), elected in 2004.
Both members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus freely admit their chances are slim, as the caucus has been a thorn in the side for GOP House leadership and few have landed top committee assignments, let alone chairmanships.
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