WASHINGTON -- In its first major legislative action of the year, the House approved, in a bipartisan vote on Wednesday, a bill that would make it tougher for the federal government to impose new costs on businesses and consumers.
The bill, giving lawmakers a parliamentary tool to block laws and regulations that add to private sector costs, passed 274-149, with 67 Democrats joining 207 Republicans in support. It faces an uncertain future in the Senate and opposition from the Clinton administration, which says it does not properly balance the costs of legislation with intended benefits to the public.
The "Mandates Information Act," authored by Reps. Gary Condit, D-Calif., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, requires congressional committees and the Congressional Budget Office to report on how legislation affects consumers, workers and businesses.
It allows lawmakers to raise a parliamentary objection called a point of order to any bill that the CBO has not studied or which costs the private sector more than $100 million in a year.
A point of order prompts a 20-minute debate, and if sustained, can effectively kill a bill.
"This bill does not stop legislative mandates," Condit said in debate that began last week. "All the bill does is allow us to accumulate more information ... so we hopefully can make better decisions on behalf of the people we represent."
The legislation expands the unfunded mandate act, a central piece of the House GOP's "Contract with America," which passed Congress in 1995. That law requires cost analyses of laws or regulations but allows points of order only on those measures that cost the public sector more than $50 million a year.
Supporters of the new bill pointed out that there had been only seven points of order resulting from the 1995 act, and in each case the House decided to move forward with the bill despite the costs to state or local governments.
The Condit-Portman bill had strong backing from business groups: "Often, legislators don't take into account how tough it can be for businesses, particularly small businesses, to absorb government mandates," said Herman Cain, CEO and president of the National Restaurant Association.
But the consumer group Public Citizen, reflecting the opposition of consumer and environmental organizations, said it would allow Congress "to hide behind a procedural vote to torpedo vital legislation with strong public support."
The House defeated, by 216-203, an amendment by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that would have allowed members to raise similar objections to bills that could weaken existing health, safety and environmental laws.
It also rejected, 216-210, an amendment by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a leading GOP environmentalist, that would have made it more difficult to raise points of order and stated that such objections could not cut off debate on a bill.
A nearly identical bill passed the House last year by 279-132, but was not taken up by the Senate.
The Republican leadership has touted the bill as an example of its attempt to offer legislation that appeals to both parties, but Clinton administration officials saw it differently.
The administration, in a statement, said it recognized the need for good cost analyses but opposed the bill, saying it created an obstacle to needed legislation by "considering only the costs and none of the benefits of legislation that protects human health, safety, the environment or the nation's economic well-being."