WASHINGTON — A Republican-run hearing on eliminating federal regulations quickly erupted into partisanship Wednesday, as GOP lawmakers said many rules cost American jobs while Democrats insisted they protect public health, the environment and even national security.
The hearing witness, Obama administration chief regulatory official Cass Sunstein, insisted that rules are designed to protect the public and the economy, and are issued only after balancing benefits against the costs.
"Job creation is in the first sentence" of President Barack Obama's recent executive order to review all government regulations, Sunstein said.
The chairman of the Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, went on the offensive at the outset of the hearing, accusing the Obama administration of a "rush to regulate" and basing job-killing decisions on political correctness.
He said the administration of George W. Bush objected to regulations from nearly two-dozen agencies while the Obama administration has objected to none.
Stearns said the pace of issuing new regulations has been "breathtaking" in recent years.
Stearns encouraged Sunstein to answer yes or no to his questions, cutting off his attempts to defend rules by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said that unlike the Republicans, she "would like to hear answers to some of these questions."
Defending proposed environmental rules on controlling boiler emissions and greenhouse gases, she asked Sunstein whether the rulemaking allowed comments from the public and especially from industry.
"Yes, and it continues," Sunstein said.
"Over 4,800 comments including a large amount from industry," DeGette said.
"Yes, I'm aware of the sheer volume of comments," Sunstein replied.
The Energy and Commerce Committee's chairman, Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, then accused the EPA of trying to rush through the boiler regulation and said Congress might want to extend the rulemaking time. Sunstein said a shorter time frame was ordered by a court, not the Obama administration.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. and the former committee chairman, said the purpose of the boiler rules was to protect children from mercury and lead poisoning, and the benefit far exceeded the cost. He added other EPA proposals protected national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.
Sunstein said "we don't have any serious question" that the EPA rules survive a cost-benefit test.
With a sympathetic ear to corporate America, Republicans are talking about fighting existing and proposed regulations that Obama and congressional Democrats prize, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions and rules to enforce last year's financial and health care overhauls.
In one of several recent business-friendly moves, Obama issued an executive order last week ordering agencies to use the "least burdensome tools" when issuing regulations and to eliminate "outmoded, ineffective, insufficient or excessively burdensome" ones.
But the examples the administration has cited are far narrower than the GOP's targets.
"A lot of what each party may want to go after is supported by some set of the public," said Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation magazine, published by the Cato Institute, which favors limiting government's reach. He predicted numerous partisan clashes, "and in 2012 we'll have the election and see what happens."
Sunstein was testifying to the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, headed by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. Stearns said recently that he doubts Obama and the GOP want to examine the same rules.
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