In Anti-Government Politics, “Time-Out” on Regulation versus Shortened Lives

Michelle Chen

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) (center) at a news conference July 14, 2011 in Washington, D.C. to highlight "Republican efforts to cut Washington's red tape."

Seizing upon a reliable job creation” talking point, conservatives have stoked their war against big government” by trying to freeze federal actions to protect the public.

The proposed Regulatory Time-Out Act,” which would impose a one-year moratorium on significant” new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers — in other words, policies that capitalists call job killers.”

According to the champion of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, significant” rules are those costing more than $100 million per year,” and those projected to have an adverse impact on jobs, the economy, or our international competitiveness.” The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people’s health and safety.

This particular bill may not make it through Congress, but it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality on the Hill by offering a convenient tool for undermining the Environmental Protection Agency — that clean-air promoting, worker-protecting, job killing organization of America,” which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has promised shutter once and for all if elected.

Zeroing in on a textbook example of regulatory evil-doing, the measure seems to aim directly at a planned EPA regulation that would reduce emissions from boilers. According to a federal analysis, the pending boiler MACT rule would target tens of thousands of boilers at in various facilities including refineries, chemical plants, universities and commercial buildings, along with dozens of solid waste incinerators. The rule would reduce public exposure to mercury, soot and other toxics linked to cancer, child developmental problems, and premature death.

But the time-out crowd is less concerned with all that death and destruction than with the supposedly crippling impact on the economy. The Hill reported this week:

Collins said this rule could force pulp and paper mills and other operations to close.

And that is just for starters,” she said. Once these mills close, the businesses that supply them would also be forced to lay off workers. Estimates are that nearly 90,000 Americans would lose their jobs, wages would drop by $4 billion, and government at all levels would see revenues decline by a staggering $1.3 billion.”

Surely this regulatory assault would devastate jobless Americans. Or at least be an unaffordable loss for lawmakers bankrolled by polluting industries.

Collins stressed there would be exemptions for certain protections that address imminent threats to human health or safety,” or foster private sector job creation and the enhancement of the competitiveness of the American worker.” But the reassurances invoke corporate terminology typically used to justify industry’s drive to wring as much labor as possible from workers’ bodies.

But who really loses from these burdensome rules? Rena Steinzor at the Center for Progressive Reform wrote in May that, although the agency had stalled on finalizing the boiler regulation:

By any reasonable estimation, it should have been a jewel in the EPA’s regulatory crown. Released in February, the EPA’s final Boiler MACT rule (actually, it’s two rules — one addressing large boilers and the other addressing smaller ones) would annually prevent up to nearly 6,600 premature deaths, more than 4,000 non-fatal heart attacks, more than 1,600 cases of acute bronchitis, and more than 313,000 missed work and school days. The final rule produced these enormous health benefits despite the fact it had been dramatically softened to placate industry critics. Because of these benefits, a recent CPR white paper had identified the Boiler MACT rule as one of the 12 most critical environmental, health, and safety regulations still in the pipeline.” The EPA had projected that the rule would generate up to $54 billion in benefits at a cost of less than $2 billion; agency projections usually overestimate costs and underestimate benefits, and some benefits defy monetization.

So on balance, this regulatory investment is a bargain for the public: workers would gain back hundreds of thousands of otherwise lost workdays and maybe even avoid agonizing, unnecessary death. But these aren’t the numbers anti-government ideologues like to cite in cost projections. Nor do they consider the potential jobs generated by regulations, and especially not the priceless benefit of a child spending more days learning in class. Nor the value of her parent living long enough to see her graduate from college. In anti-government politics, there’s no room on the bottom line for real people — just as long as they vote the right way.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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