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What Is the Congressional Review Act?

The U.S. Congress is wiping away rules and regulations finalized in the last months of the Obama administration through a little-used 1996 law

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smithsonian.com

In recent weeks, Congressional Republicans have voted to roll back several rules put in place during the last few months the Obama administration was in office. From striking down financial regulations to methane emissions standards, it may seem unusual that Congress can so easily roll back rules that are already in effect. But the recent change in administrations has brought an obscure 1996 law into play: the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

After any rule is passed, this little-used law gives Congress a window of 60 working days (when they are in session) to review and request repeal of any executive branch regulations, writes Stuart Shapiro at The Hill. If a rule is struck down by the CRA, that agency is then prohibited from enacting a similar rule in the future.

Typically, Federal agencies are authorized to make their own rules and regulations, enabling them to carry out their congressionally mandated mission—whether those are regulations on tobacco packaging or governing clean water. Though all rules go through a lengthy period of vetting and a period allowing public input, the CRA provides an "oversight tool" for Congress to prevent agencies from overstepping, writes Emmarie Huetteman for The New York Times.​

To overturn rules passed within that 60-day window, the act requires a simple majority in the House and Senate and a signature from the president. Since filibusters are not allowed, it serves as a way to fast track the roll back of recently passed rules.

So why hasn’t Congress used this tool more often?

Shapiro explains that the stars rarely align to allow it to work. Usually, a presidential administration that approves a final rule is in support of its own regulation and will veto any CRA resolution that makes it to the president’s desk. But now that Republicans control the executive branch and Congress, they can use the CRA to stop any rules enacted in the last months of the Obama administration without worrying about overcoming a presidential veto. According to Huetteman, the window for the new administration extends back to any rules passed on or since June 13, 2016. Which might seem like an overreach of the 60-working-day limit, but it turns out that Congress takes a lot of breaks and was off all of August and most of October and November of 2016.

The law was passed in 1996 with bipartisan support as part of the Republican's Contract With America. But prior to the current flurry of CRA resolutions, it has only succeeded one other time. In November, 2000, at the close of the Clinton administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a rule on ergonomic standards in the workplace. Congress passed a CRA resolution rescinding those rules the following March, which the new president, George W. Bush, signed. OSHA has been prohibited from setting workplace ergonomic standards since.

In 2009, after Obama's first election, Democrats in Congress had the opportunity to use the CRA to overturn dozens of rules made during the last months of the Bush administration, reports Charlie Savage at The New York Times. But, explains Susan Crabtree at the Washington Examiner, they opted against using the act since they believed many of the rules didn't go far enough, and use of the Act would prevent the incoming administration from changing or strengthening the rules.

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About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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