While Donald Trump distracts us with bellicose pronouncements and internecine White House wars, his henchmen in regulatory agencies are methodically rolling back decades of progress. Much of the damage is the fulfillment of years of lobbying by industries affected by regulations that benefit consumers, workers, minorities and economically disadvantaged citizens. Some of the erasures reflect the views of hard-line, rightwing ideologues and the “think” tanks who dictate their talking points. Many are happening under the auspices of Trump-installed agency directors who come directly from the industries they are now regulating. And there are many rollbacks that stem from pure vengeance and racial hatred—the drive to obliterate anything enacted by Barack Obama.
Taken together, they are a giant step backward. The effect is like a scene from “Back to the Future,” in which Marty McFly’s image is slowly fading from the family album. It is frightening. It was previously unimaginable. And it represents an existential crisis for the America we thought we knew.
It bears noting that, while Trump’s pronouncements are erratic and often improvised, and while his White House staff appears to be in constant turmoil, there is nothing chaotic about the deregulation orgy taking place in federal agencies. One of Trump’s early executive orders established, within every agency, deregulation teams charged with systematically dismantling rules objectionable to affected industries and lobbying organizations.
The problem with regulations, goes the conservative argument, is that they impede businesses. Yes, they do. They impede corporations and industries from doing whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and however they want to do it—often to the detriment of consumers, customers, neighborhoods, minorities and the overall environment. While there are always some silly and gratuitous regulations in the mix, most regulations come into existence because people are being harmed. We have come a long way, in this country, from the unfettered days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the darkness at noon air pollution era, and the times when radioactive and other toxic wastes could be dumped into anyone’s neighborhood, unannounced. Under Trump’s plan, we are looking at a more toxic, more dangerous, more unhealthy, less equitable, less transparent America—but one that will be vastly more profitable for the CEO’s of and shareholders of deregulated industries.
An ugly list of rollbacks
I have been trying to compile a list of regulations that are being reversed under the Trump administration. It’s very hard to keep up. Every week, there is something new and egregious. And the whole process is fragmented into tiny little pieces–a strategy similar to that used in money laundering–which makes it very hard to track.
Here’s what I have, in no particular order, as of the seventh month of this terrible regime. And these, by the way, are just the ones that have been made public via news reports and the occasional Trump tweet or press-conference blurt. There are undoubtedly many more that we don’t know about, because many of them are being cancelled behind the scenes, without any notification at all.
One of Trump’s early executive orders aimed at gutting environmental regulations. Under the order, Trump:
-Directed the Environmental Protection Agency to “suspend, revise, or rescind the Clean Power Plan.”
-Mandated that every agency conduct a 180-day review that identifies all regulations and rules that “impede” energy production
-Lifted the moratorium on federal coal leasing.
-Rescinded restrictions on hydraulic fracking
-Eliminated the National Environmental Policy Act, a set of guidelines for agencies to consider climate change into their decision making process.
– Instructed the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to “review and reconsider” the Clean Water Rule that delineates which of the nation’s waterways should be protected under the federal Clean Water Act. It includes streams, wetlands and other smaller waterways that collectively provide drinking water for an estimated 117 million people — one in three Americans.
More recently, Trump signed an executive order cancelling environmental rules for infrastructure.
-Rolled back standards set by Obama [known as the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard] that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.
Gutting protections for minorities
If I understand this correctly, the Department of Justice is using a regulatory shortcut to speed up the dismantling of civil rights rules. According to Slate,
There are two types of regulations: rules, which are binding regulations with the full force of law, and guidance, which interpret rules and are not binding. Rules must go through a public notice-and-comment period; guidance does not. To revoke a rule, an agency must once again undertake the notice-and-comment process, allowing opponents to intervene, protest, or sue. (Congress can also overturn recently finalized rules.) To revoke guidance, an agency need only issue a memo declaring the guidance to be null.
-Under Obama, the rule was that schools could not discriminate against transgender children. Under Trump, this protection has been downgraded to guidance. As a result, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been able to withdraw the guidance, leaving trans children unprotected.
-A regulation proscribing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in credit, for instance, was handed down in the form of a letter, rendering it susceptible to sudden withdrawal.
Rules are under assault, too.
-The Department of Health and Human Services is planning to repeal a rule interpreting the Affordable Care Act to prohibit discrimination against trans and gender-nonconforming people.
-The Department of Housing and Urban Development is also laying the groundwork to rescind a rule allowing trans people without a home to stay at the sex-segregated shelter that corresponds to their gender identity.
-The Department of Transportation suspended a rule that would have required airlines to provide more public information about passenger fees. The Transportation Department has estimated that airlines collected more than $4.1 billion last year in baggage fees.
In an article published in May 2017, the New York Times listed the following regulatory changes:
Reversed: Required companies seeking significant federal contracts to disclose violations of labor standards.
Reversed: Limited the way mines dump debris when clearing earth in order to prevent the destruction of area streams. The regulation would have protected an estimated 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests over the next two decades.
Reversed: Barred states from withholding federal family-planning funds from Planned Parenthood affiliates and other health clinics that provide abortions.
Reversed: Required the Social Security Administration to turn over to the Department of Justice information on individuals with disabling mental illnesses — about 75,000 a year — to include in a registry of those not allowed to buy a gun.
Gun rights groups and others said it unfairly assumed those with mental illness have a tendency toward violence.
Reversed: Required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments in exchange for access to drilling or mining rights.
The rule was part of an effort to prevent corruption in foreign countries. The industry argued it would put American oil and gas companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Reversed: Set federal limits on state-based drug testing of people seeking unemployment insurance benefits.The repeal clears the way for the expansion of drug testing of anyone applying for jobless benefits.
Reversed: Revised the way the federal government conducts land-use planning on 245 million acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Critics said the rule would make energy development difficult and give the federal government too much power.
Reversed: Tightened restrictions on efforts by state officials to allow hunting of certain animals, like wolves and grizzly bears, on some Alaskan federal wildlife refuges. Backers of the rule said it prohibited inhumane hunting methods used to reduce predator populations. State officials argued that the rule too broadly blocked the hunting of predators, making it harder for Alaska to raise its populations of moose and caribou, which are more coveted by hunters.
Reversed: Told school districts how to rate their schools.
Reversed: Created regulations on collecting data on the quality of teacher preparation programs.
Reversed: Changed rules by which states may establish I.R.A.-based payroll-deduction programs for private-sector workers whose employers do not offer a retirement plan.
Reversed: Changed rules by which local governments may establish I.R.A.-based payroll-deduction programs for private-sector workers whose employers do not offer a retirement plan.
Reversed: Clarified that employers have a continuing obligation to maintain accurate records of serious workplace injuries and illnesses for up to five years.
Reversed: Required broadband providers to get permission from customers to collect and use their online information.
And that’s not all
-Under its new Trump-appointed director, The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] proposed a draft plan to reverse the Obama-era net neutrality order that gave the commission authority to bar internet companies from blocking, throttling or giving “fast lanes” to websites.
-The FCC also reversed a 2016 decision that limits the number of television stations some broadcasters can buy. This decision is a direct giveaway to Sinclair Communications, a company that is rapidly expanding to offer right-wing-oriented news/propaganda in local markets.
-The Department of Labor is now slow-walking Obama-era regulations that would expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.
-On March 27, Trump revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order then-President Barack Obama put in place to ensure that companies with federal contracts comply with 14 labor and civil rights laws.
-The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS], under Trump, has reversed its own 2016 decision and is now cooperating with nursing homes in taking away residents’ right to sue.
– The Department of Labor will “reconsider” a rule requiring employers to track workplace injuries and illnesses.
This is far from a comprehensive list. But it is a clear indicator of the direction we are headed in. One indicator of how far this administration intends to go is its focus not just on big issues, but on the small stuff, too—especially if it originated with Obama. Last week, Trump’s de-regulators announced a micro-change that says a lot: They’re rescinding an Obama-era order limiting the use of bottled water in National Parks.