Faced with a divisive and chaotic political environment in Washington, President Donald Trump's efforts to roll back EPA and other agencies' rules may be one of the few priority agenda items his administration is successfully advancing, though agency officials still face a long and litigious road before any major rules are repealed or revised.
With administration and Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act dead, for now, and a just-announced House GOP bill to cut taxes facing a steep climb in Congress, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is acknowledging that recently filed charges against former top Trump campaign aides are undercutting the president's agenda.
“It is very distracting to the president, as it would be to any citizen, to be investigated for something, while at the same time trying to carry the weight of what being president of the United States means on his shoulder,” Kelly told Fox News Oct. 31, referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
But Trump might not be distracted from his deregulatory agenda. He told the New York Times Nov. 1 that he was not bothered by charges against his former campaign aides and remains focused on “deregulation and low unemployment rates.”
The president's focus on deregulation provides a host of political and economic benefits for an administration that has struggled to demonstrate progress on its own terms.
Unlike tax reform and other issues that require congressional action, rolling back rules requires little from Congress, though the current GOP-led legislature takes action when it can.
For example, Trump Nov. 1 signed a congressionally approved resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act -- the 15th such measure since he took office -- rolling back a rule issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that had eased plaintiffs' abilities to bring class action suits against financial services firms.
In addition, deregulatory actions have long united a Republican base that is frequently divided between the business community and more populist elements.
Despite some of the president's more divisive policy priorities, such as his trade agenda, deregulation is “more-standard Republican canon,” says Dan Goldbeck, a research analyst at American Action Forum, a free-market group.
Trump and many others in his administration frequently tout their initial regulatory overhauls as one driver for the current economic strength, including consecutive quarters of 3 percent GDP growth and increased business confidence.
“Over the last nine months, we have removed job-killing regulations at a record pace,” the president told a Heritage Foundation event Oct. 17. Pledging that there is “much more to come,” Trump said that he believes in regulation, “but it has to be limited to what we need. We want clean water. We want clean air. It has to be fair.”
But he said that his administration's deregulatory efforts are partly responsible for the booming economy and low unemployment. “Our regulatory reductions are going to put more Americans back to work and more lobbyists out of work. . . . Which is why regulatory reform is a crucial part of our drive to drain the swamp,” the president added.
Implemented And Reinforced
Goldbeck and others say that despite distractions, such as former FBI Director Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump's campaign ties to Russia, the deregulatory agenda has been launched and is being reinforced and implemented -- in part by the series of executive orders Trump issued early in his administration.
Those include measures to speed infrastructure approvals at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and elsewhere, requiring agencies to repeal two rules for every new one, prohibit new regulatory costs, and require EPA and other agencies to develop lengthy lists of rules to limit burdens on the energy sector and others.
While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has not yet formally repealed any rule, he has delayed dozens and has begun the process of repealing or rewriting many, including high-profile measures such as the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and the Clean Water Act (CWA) jurisdiction rule.
Some, like the CPP and the CWA rule repeals, still face significant litigation from states, environmentalists and others who support the Obama administration's regulations.
But supporters of the deregulatory agenda are pleased with the current progress.
“The big rules that have been separately teed up” such as the CPP and the CWA rule, “are on their own tracks, infrastructure directives are moving forward” with action at CEQ, the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, and elsewhere, “there's a group of energy-related actions that are moving forward, and [the Office of Management & Budget] is riding herd on the regulatory agenda, with requirements the agencies are supposed to meet for 2-for-1 and negative cost impact obligations,” says Jane Luxton, a former Bush administration official who is now a lawyer at Clark Hill.
“All in all, a significant amount of dereg is occurring, and these actions do seem to be factors in the economic growth and business optimism,” she adds, though she cautions that the administration may not be able to address lower-priority rules that some view as burdensome because of a lack of bandwidth.
While much of the deregulatory agenda may be focused on rolling back existing rules at EPA and elsewhere, both Luxton and Goldbeck note that, with the exception of rules that are court-ordered or congressionally mandated, few, if any, new rules have advanced.
At EPA, for example, the agency has issued final framework rules governing existing chemicals, as required by the revised Toxic Substances Control Act, as well as a handful of air toxics rules. Nearly all other regulatory actions at the agency have been aimed at delaying, repealing or revising current rules.
Goldbeck says that while some deregulatory actions will take time, limits on new rules is further enhancing industry confidence.
“They are trying to make cuts [to existing regulatory burdens], but they are also not increasing new burdens,” he says. “This is helping businesses feel more comfortable.” -- Jeremy Bernstein (email@example.com)