WASHINGTON — House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa gaveled Thursday's hearing to order with two posters displayed behind him: "How do regulations block private sector job growth?" asked one. "We're listening," promised the other.
The problem, said Democrats on the panel, is whom the committee is listening to: business owners, their lobbyists and conservative think tanks who came with a built-in bias against federal health and safety regulations.
"We need to expand the scope of our inquiry to include the benefits of regulation, as well as the costs," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee's top Democrat. "We also need to expand the groups we are seeking input from beyond those who want to repeal regulations."
The oversight hearing was part of a coordinated GOP effort to "expose job-killing regulations." A judiciary subcommittee held a similar hearing Thursday afternoon, followed by floor debate on a resolution requiring House committees to list and review regulations in their jurisdiction.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the resolution's sponsor, said stronger oversight was necessary to "rein in big government and shine light on our federal regulatory process."
Democrats questioned the necessity, if not the goals, of the effort.
"A meaningless gimmick that only wastes time," said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y. "Nothing more than a vehicle to rehash old politically motivated fights," said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. "A feel-good resolution from the Republican majority," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
President Obama is conducting his own review of regulations. He told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday that he would work with business leaders to "get rid of regulations that have outlived their usefulness."
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said Congress should "weed out the hyperbole" and look at specific regulations.
Issa, R-Calif., agreed that more work remained to be done but said Congress first needs to raise awareness of the impact of regulations on jobs. "We think what we can be is the canary in the coal mine," Issa told reporters.
"It's easy to rail against regulations in the abstract. It's like railing against taxes," said Nicholas Bagley, a law professor who studies regulation at the University of Michigan. "But it's hard to sell to the American people that we should water down environmental or consumer protection regulations specifically."
Even if Republicans aren't successful in rolling back existing regulations, the effort could make regulators think harder about the costs of compliance.