Congress quietly working to undo Obama-era regulations

While President Donald Trump's daily activities continue to consume much of the nation's attention, Congress has quietly launched a legislating spree at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The House and Senate are churning out a steady stream of bills — not the big-ticket items Trump promised on the campaign trail, but a hand-picked collection of discrete measures aimed at dismantling the regulatory agenda that President Barack Obama put in place during his waning days in office. 

Many of the proposals come from a wish list compiled by the powerful Koch brothers' network, designed to loosen federal rules on the energy industry, Wall Street and other businesses aligned to the industrialists. 

Other groups have also weighed in. A top priority of the National Rifle Association, for example, would halt a rule requiring background checks for gun buyers who have a mental health condition for which they receive Social Security disability benefits. It was initially drafted in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting and finalized late last year. 

Because Republicans now control Congress and the White House, the measures have a good chance of becoming law. Congress is using special rules that require just a simple majority vote for fast-track passage. 

Already, two measures have cleared both chambers on largely party-line votes. One rolls back mountaintop coal mining regulations that would have updated 30-year-old rules on downstream pollution. Another halts a previous bipartisan effort that sought to stem overseas corruption by requiring U.S. companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. 

More House-passed bills are likely to clear the Senate this week, and Trump is expected to soon have his first bill signing at the White House. 

Republicans say their bill-passing flurry will kick-start the economy by undoing cumbersome rules Obama put in without congressional approval. 

"With President Trump's signature, every one of these regulations will be overturned," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the majority leader, announcing the agenda. "That's how to protect American workers and businesses, defend the Constitution, and turn words into actions." 

But Democrats and advocacy groups warn the new measures will wipe out important safeguards. 

"We put in a lot of work to make sure there were protections for streams and communities, and (now) we don't get those protections," said Erin Savage, a program manager at Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy organization that had been working on the stream protection regulations for a decade. 

"They've said, 'This is a job-killing rule and we're going to bring back coal by killing this rule,'" she said. "But the coal industry, especially in Central Appalachia, has been on decline. ... You can't change market demand with a stream rule." 

What has been striking about the legislative activity is not necessarily the content of the measures, which largely match GOP goals for less government intervention in business and industry, but the speed at which the bills are being approved in Congress. 

That's in large part thanks to the assistance of the Koch network. 

Andy Koenig, a vice president at Freedom Partners, a Koch-backed business advocacy organization, said that many lawmakers thought that because Obama "had done so much with 'a pen and a phone,' President Trump could walk in with an eraser and get it done on Day One." 

But he and other seasoned operatives knew it would be more complicated. "We realized there was a need on Capitol Hill," he said. 

As Trump's transition team began to take shape, Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-aligned group, got to work late last year on an early agenda — its "Roadmap to Repeal" — for Congress. 

The Koch network sent advisers to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican leaders and help prioritize the agenda with rank-and-file lawmakers. Activists from the network's state chapters — many who knocked on doors to help get out the November vote — showed up in lawmakers' offices to urge support. 

They focused Republicans on a little-known procedural tool — the Congressional Review Act — that allows Congress to disapprove of new regulations within a short time frame after the rules are issued. 

The tactic had been attempted by the GOP-led Congress before, but Obama was able to veto the resolutions. Only once, during the George W. Bush administration, had a disapproval resolution been signed into law. Now with Trump in the White House, Republicans have an opening. 

The process must happen quickly, within 60 legislative days of new rules being issued or from the start of the new Congress. If they wait longer than that, legislation to overturn the regulations would be subject to filibuster by Senate Democrats. 

Another House-passed measure sent to the Senate would halt new regulations on flares used to burn off methane gas. It is backed by the oil industry. 

The American Petroleum Institute welcomed the rollback of the methane rule, calling the Obama-era regulation "a step backward" for energy policy that would "impede oil and natural gas production on federal land." 

Dozens more are in the queue. This week, the House is scheduled to vote to undo regulations that eased drug testing requirements for recipients of unemployment benefits and ensured federal funds were not blocked for family planning clinics. 

GOP lawmakers have been quick to sign on as bill sponsors. 

"The hunger among Republicans in Congress to push back is very real," said Chrissy Harbin, vice president at Americans for Prosperity. "They are jumping at the chance to move forward with resolutions of disapproval." 

But not all of the measures may make it to Trump's desk. 

The effort to roll back gun background checks has hit resistance in the Senate after advocates of the restrictions began flooding senators' offices with phone calls and emails. 

"Donald Trump's victory was not, in fact, anything close to a mandate for an agenda for the corporate gun lobby," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "This is not going to be the cakewalk that they thought it was going to be." 

But the NRA lobby, too, is not about to give up. 

"The first pro-gun act of the Trump-era Congress is on the verge of success," the NRA lobby wrote to supporters, "but it needs your help to get over the line."

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