H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute.
“Elections have consequences,” former President Barack Obama once rightly said, and we are in an election cycle. In choosing whom to vote for, I always consider how closely a current officeholder has adhered to his or her constitutional oath while in office—has he or she voted as often as possible to limit the federal government to its constitutionally enumerated role? For new candidates, I look at their platforms and campaign websites: Do they support smaller, less powerful, limited government? If not, no vote from me.
My area of expertise and more than 30 years of experience is environmental policy. While the environment is a broad topic, there are a few key policies which, if enacted, would lessen the burden that overreaching and unjustified environmental regulations have on average people, while also improving environmental results.
Let me share them.
Regulations, a Hidden Tax
Regulations are a hidden tax, imposing more than $1.927 trillion annually on the economy. But it’s not just higher compliance costs for companies and greater costs for goods and services for you and me. Rather, the true costs are paternalistic, often petty, interferences in daily lives supposedly for our own good—like regulations limiting the kind of vehicle one can drive or purchase, what kinds of light bulbs people can use, what types of toys can be sold, and which appliances are available.
All too often, regulations impose higher costs with no environmental or public health benefit— and may in fact produce worse environmental results. More importantly, nowhere in the Constitution is the government charged with directing peoples’ choices in home goods, appliances, or transportation, or determining how much water or power we should use.
In gross acts of constitutional irresponsibility, past Congresses have delegated enormous amounts of lawmaking power and discretion to executive agencies. Congress gets credit for passing vague, feel-good laws, while leaving the hard details of writing the rules and enforcing the laws to administrative agencies. When bureaucrats go overboard, members of Congress typically wash their hands of the affair, claiming they never intended a negative outcome and assailing the agency for going beyond what lawmakers intended.
Congress Tried a Little Deregulation
Congress’s first attempt to claw back the power delegated to it in the Constitution came with the Congressional Review Act (CRA) of 1996. It is a power that has been rarely used. The CRA allows the House and Senate to pass resolutions of disapproval to block major regulations. Despite tens of thousands of regulations being enacted in the 27 years since the CRA passed, Congress has used it fewer than 15 times to block new rules.
And presidents have vetoed almost all of those efforts, including President Biden who, as of June 2023, had vetoed five bipartisan CRA resolutions of disapproval. In the environmental field, Congress passed CRAs to prevent the Biden administration from three major actions: 1) broadening federal authority over private wetlands, 2) regulating the types of automobiles sold, 3) and allowing stock fund managers to act as non-fiduciaries when managing people’s money. In the third case, Biden’s Department of Labor ruled that fund managers can use the investment and retirement funds entrusted to them to push political agendas—usually known as “environmental, social, or governance” (ESG) criteria—which may prevent maximizing returns or even result in losses.
Under the CRA, unless Congress disapproves of a rule, the regulation becomes law by default. To limit federal power, protect peoples’ free choices, and improve government accountability, I will be looking for legislative and presidential candidates who support a federal “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny” (REINS) Act. This would require Congress to approve all new major regulations, including any regulation imposing $100 million or more in costs on the economy, before it can go into effect. The REINS Act would put Congress back in the driver’s seat in terms of its constitutionally delegated sole authority to legislate, and in terms of accountability and responsibility. A couple of states have passed REINS Acts and, contrary to predictions, the world didn’t end, nor did environmental, health, or safety conditions worsen.
Transparency is a paramount virtue in science and politics, even more so when science and politics overlap.
The scientific process produces discoveries that expand human knowledge and further human welfare only when scientists act in a transparent manner: when different teams of researchers collaborate, sharing data, assumptions, and methodologies, exchanging theories and ideas, and reviewing and testing each other’s work. Transparency is critical to confirming or disconfirming research results. It is the best way to ensure that what scientists claim to have proven is true and to prevent other scientists from going down unproductive research paths.
Regulations, by their very nature, limit people’s freedom and/or direct their choices to paths approved by government, thus imposing often severe costs.Because government is supposed to serve the people, the reasoning behind the rules adopted must be as transparent as possible. In the fields of climate change, clean air, and public health, a number of scientific advisors and regulators have been caught behaving very badly, suppressing science that discredits or calls into question their pet claims and theories that advance regulation, and censoring dissent or alternative claims. We must improve the transparency of the science used to justify regulations.
Regulations should be based on the best-available scientific and economic analyses of any problem being addressed and the likely outcomes of rules proposed to solve it. And taxpayers, who foot the bill for much of the research used to justify regulations and fund the agencies charged with ensuring public health and environmental quality, should have access to the information used to make regulatory decisions. Yet, all too often, just the opposite is the case. Government agencies impose rules without the public or outside researchers, being able to examine the scientific or economic research and data used to justify them. This must end.
Thus I will be supporting candidates who embrace and will push for and approve laws that end secret science. Laws must be enacted to mandate that regulatory agencies when crafting regulations only use scientific studies for which the underlying data, methodologies, and assumptions are publicly available. The science behind them must be available for public inspection, criticism, and independent verification. Unless potential reviewers can examine underlying data and assumptions and attempt to replicate the results, it’s difficult to determine whether regulations based upon that research is justified.
Conflicts of Interest
Finally, to prevent scientific corruption, or the appearance of such corruption, I will be supporting candidates who will sponsor, vote for, and enact laws that ban conflicts of interest. That means preventing members of federal advisory committees from applying for research grants as well as implementing policies to ensure that advisory panel members, agency heads and staff, and grant recipients have no other conflicts of interest.
It was always a foolish practice to allow those recommending—and often determining who gets federal grants—to be in the running for those grants. Far too often, those deciding who gets federal dollars each year have awarded themselves and their friends billions of taxpayer dollars, while simultaneously lobbying for increased budgets for the regulatory agencies that delivered their grants. Talk about the foxes guarding the chicken coop.
Contrary to some people’s impressions, these are not radical proposals, but rather common sense. They would diminish the opportunities for academic nepotism and corruption, while reducing regulatory mission creep, improving transparency—often touted as the hallmark of good government—and reintroducing accountability to the appropriate parties for policies enacted.
Past Congresses and administrations have tried to enact, some on a more limited scale, the policies that I am proposing. Any candidate who rejects them is in favor of government secrecy, secret science, and regulations enacted through backroom deals with lobbyists. Why would anyone besides those directly benefiting from such shady dealing support that?
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.