The House Republican leadership and Tea Party conservatives have made it clear they plan to run a crusade against regulation generally, and environmental regulation, in particular. They are planning to bring up legislation in July that would dismantle the regulatory system, and spending bills are already starting to fill up with riders to block specific rules.

Once rules have been in place for a time, they tend either to be taken for granted, or celebrated as “progress” that was made by society as a whole

In such a contentious environment, it pays to remember why we need public safeguards to begin with. As experience has shown, the marketplace alone cannot produce clean air and water; cannot guarantee the safety of our food or medicines, or the integrity and stability of our financial system.

The market is not designed to accomplish these vital public goals. They can be achieved only through public action, which is to say through safeguards enforced by the government. Such “rules of the road” not only protect the public, they provide certainty and a fair playing field for industry. These rules are no more a violation of the notion of “free enterprise” than having a police force is a violation of the notion of a “free country.”

That’s why once rules have been in place for a time, they tend either to be taken for granted, or celebrated as “progress” that was made by society as a whole. Companies tout how clean and safe their products are; everyone points approvingly to our cleaner air and water.

But pretty much each step of that progress that is now so universally acclaimed was fraught with controversy. The same kind of fears that are expressed today about job losses and high costs were raised about all the safeguards that we now take for granted.

And there is no more reason to credit such fears now than there was then. Studies have found that prospective estimates of what a regulation will cost tend to exceed the actual costs, often by a large factor. This is because the estimates cannot account well for technological change and are based on information from parties with an interest in producing a high estimate. Whenever industry is asked to identify the safeguards that pose the greatest threat, they seem to answer “the next one.” But this is a perverse kind of future orientation that merely confirms that experience has not borne out past claims.

Yet despite the positive overall record of regulation, the House plans to vote this summer on a bill that would effectively dismantle the fundamental regulatory procedures that have been in place for more than 100 years. The REINS Act (H.R. 10/S. 299), would prevent any major safeguard from taking effect unless Congress approved it within 70 legislative days. All an industry would have to do to derail a safeguard is to convince a bare majority in one House of Congress to vote against it. There is then nothing the other body could do to resurrect it. And the Administration’s role – under any President – would be relegated, in effect, to advising the Congress on what a detailed regulation should say.

The REINS Act is a summary rejection of the hard-earned knowledge that led to the creation of agencies and of a century of bipartisan experience. The Act radically repositions Congress as the place to make ultimate decisions that involve detailed technical matters. Congress should, through law, be making the basic political and policy decisions about what kinds of activities need to be regulated and on the criteria for regulating them. And Congress already has the authority to review agency decisions. But the REINS Act goes far beyond that to make Congress the arbiter of each and every regulatory call in an effort to shut down the system.

Instead of tearing down a system that has repeatedly provided proven benefits that far outstrip their costs – cleaner air and water, better health, safer food – we ought to be talking about how to strengthen it. Congress ought to be sure that agencies have the staff and resources they need to continue to protect the public as well in the future as they have in the past. That has been a path not only to better health and safety, but to greater prosperity.

David Goldston is Government Relations Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He expressed his views on regulation to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee at the “The Views of the Administration on Regulatory Reform: An Update” hearing earlier this month. The full text of his testimony can be found on his blog.

The NRDC is the nation’s most influential environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.