WASHINGTON — Sen. Olympia Snowe says federal agencies should ensure that small businesses aren’t burdened by onerous regulations.

And agencies should be required to review rules periodically to make sure they are not too burdensome, she says.

But law professors with a liberal watchdog group say legislation proposed by the Maine Republican would grant too much power to an obscure federal official – possibly allowing that person to unilaterally wipe out an array of environmental and other regulations.

Snowe and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma introduced the Small Business Regulatory Freedom Act earlier this month. It would “ensure that federal agencies fully consider small business economic impact during the regulatory process,” they said in a release.

Snowe, the top Republican on the Senate’s small business committee, has filed an amendment to attach the measure to a broader small business bill before the full Senate this week.

Snowe says that small businesses “bear a disproportionate cost of complying with federal regulations” estimated at $1.75 trillion annually, referring to a report commissioned by the Small Business Administration’s office of advocacy.

Snowe earlier this month cited Maine’s paper industry as an example of the need for better review of federal regulations on businesses. The Department of Commerce should examine what the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to overhaul boiler-pollution rules would cost the paper and pulp industry, Snowe said at a Senate commerce committee hearing.

Among the legislation’s backers is the National Federation of Independent Business.

The legislation also would require that existing rules be reviewed at least once every 10 years. Currently, reviews are required, but there is no mandatory time period.

That provision has drawn fire from law professors in a group called the Center for Progressive Reform, a nonprofit that says it backs regulations that represent “sensible safeguards” for the environment, health and safety.

The center says the SBA report putting the cost of meeting regulations at $1.75 trillion a year is flawed. The center cites a 2009 report by the White House Office of Management and Budget that found that in the 10 years ending in 2008 annual regulatory costs totaled no more than $73 billion.

Rena Steinzor, the center’s president and a University of Maryland law professor, said the Snowe-Coburn bill would effectively give regulatory veto power to the head of the SBA’s chief counsel for advocacy.

That person could decide, unilaterally, whether an agency had done a timely or adequate evaluation of a rule’s impact on small businesses and eliminate it, she said.

“Should a lone political appointee in the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy be able to undo the considered judgment of Congress and an entire regulatory agency?” Steinzor asked in a recent blog on the center’s website.

Snowe’s office said the only power the legislation grants the chief counsel is to determine whether a review has been done on time.

Sidney A. Shapiro, university chair in law at Wake Forest University, said the bill “opens the door for misinterpretation” when it says a regulation can be suspended when the chief counsel for advocacy “determines that an agency has failed to complete the review.”

“Sen. Snowe would like to read that as a decision whether the agency has completed the review,” Shapiro said via email. But, “it can also be read, as we do, that there is an evaluative component – did you do it correctly At a minimum, there needs to be a clarification.”

Shapiro added that agencies are so strapped for staff and resources these days that they have trouble just enforcing current rules.

 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]