GOP sharpens little-used 'legislative veto' tool

WASHINGTON -- Republican members of Congress looking to kill what they call "job-killing regulations" already have a ready-made tool at their disposal — but Congress has used it to overturn just one regulation in 15 years.

So some congressional Republicans are looking to revive the often-ignored law known as the Congressional Review Act. Sometimes called a "legislative veto," the act could help fast-track efforts to kill Obama administration regulations by clearing procedural hurdles in the Senate. Just 30 senators can force a vote and send regulations back to the president under the CRA.

It also requires Congress to move quickly once a regulation is finalized, so old regulations can't be repealed. The CRA "is not perfect, but it's what we have," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who has introduced eight resolutions to negate regulations this year and is pushing colleagues — who he says are largely unaware of the tool — to do the same.

Carter, the House Republican Conference secretary, hosted a session of 70 Capitol Hill staffers Wednesday to teach them how to use the measure.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is leading a similar Senate effort. He acknowledges there's a good chance President Obama will simply veto attempts to overturn his administration's rules, but he says Republicans can still use the tool to shape the debate.

"Any way we can get it to the president's desk," Barrasso said. "He talks a pretty good game. His rhetoric is good, but the reality is he's coming out with hundreds of new regulations every month."

Obama's regulation "czar," Cass Sunstein, testified to Congress on Wednesday that the benefits of regulations far outweigh the economic cost, but that the administration has identified more than 500 areas where regulations could be repealed.

Proposed as part of the 1994 Republican "Contract With America," the Congressional Review Act was enacted as part of a 1996 small-business bill. Since then, Congress has used it to overturn only one regulation: a workplace ergonomics rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2001. President George W. Bush had just been sworn in, allowing him to sign a bill striking down a regulation developed under his predecessor.

Before and since, there have been 74 attempts to invoke the Congressional Review Act. Few get a hearing, and only three have passed even one chamber.

One reason Congress doesn't vote down more regulations is practical: Like any bill, the president could veto it — especially given his White House has already approved the regulation. And the sheer number of regulations makes it difficult for Congress to keep up. "Congress is a big, lumbering beast. It's difficult to raise from its torpor," said Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan law professor.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has set out a schedule for votes on 10 regulations he wants to repeal, but none uses the CRA.

One reason: The act applies only to final rules published in the Federal Register.

"Rather than waiting for the CRA to apply, we are moving forward to remove uncertainty and stop these harmful regulations that threaten businesses and job creators throughout the country," Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon said.

Sunstein said the rare use of the measure is a "tribute" to how hard agencies work to make good regulations. It also serves to make agencies sensitive to congressional concerns as they draw up rules.

"The CRA matters, even if it's used infrequently," he told USA TODAY.