Trump Stretches Meaning of Deregulation in Touting Achievements

One is a federal rule, initiated by former President Barack Obama, that removed Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the list of endangered species. Another repealed a grant program that hasn’t been funded since 2011.

They are among the 67 so-called "deregulatory" actions President Donald Trump cited at a Dec. 14 event to tout "the most far-reaching regulatory reform in history” designed to unburden the U.S. economy from the shackles of government oversight. To illustrate the point, he cut a length of "red tape" attached to a mountain of paper.

While the president has succeeded in undoing some major environmental and financial industry rules, a Bloomberg News review of the administration’s list found almost a third of them actually were begun under earlier presidents. Others strain the definition of lessening the burden of regulation or were relatively inconsequential, the kind of actions government implements routinely.

"They are really undercutting their own credibility by putting out numbers that are not, quite frankly, very believable," said Cary Coglianese, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is also director of the Penn Program on Regulation. “If I were advising them, I would have said put out something that’s credible."

Read more: Regulation-Killing Push Falls Short of White House Boasts

An earlier Bloomberg review of Trump administration claims about regulatory actions found that it had taken credit for killing or delaying rules that were pending and hadn’t gone into effect, including more than 100 that were already dead under Obama.

There have been victories for the administration’s anti-regulatory push — such as Congress’s repeal of 15 regulations and the Federal Communications Commission’s vote this month to curb open-internet rules — but in most cases it has merely delayed implementing rules it opposes or begun the lengthy process of killing them. That means that, so far at least, many of the actions could easily be overturned by a successor.

In one of his first actions as president, Trump ordered that two regulations be revised or eliminated before any new federal rule could be adopted. In order to follow the order, the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs created a new label for rules or agency policy shifts it deemed were lowering burdens on society, calling them deregulatory.

In the Dec. 14 press conference, Trump said the government had taken 67 such deregulatory actions through Sept. 30 — with an annual savings to society of $570 million — and had imposed just three new regulations. Instead of two for one, the ratio was 22 to one, he said.

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“The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt,” Trump said at the event.

The White House didn’t respond to multiple emailed requests for comment on the administration’s list of 67 deregulatory actions.

While it isn’t nearly as sweeping as he would like, Clyde Wayne Crews, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which advocates for limiting the role of government, applauded Trump’s effort. U.S. law requires many steps before a new rule can be imposed or an old one revised, making it difficult for a new administration to take aggressive action so soon, Crews said.

“In terms of what a president can do on his own, I think this is a good start,” he said.

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The administration is stepping up its efforts to undercut scores of rules that threaten the environment and public safety, says Amit Narang of the advocacy group Public Citizen, which supports regulatory protections.

However, the claim about taking 67 deregulatory actions doesn’t always add up. 

For one thing, it’s difficult to assess the White House’s assertion that the deregulatory actions taken through Sept. 30 have lowered the costs to society by a net $570 million a year, or $8.1 billion over time.

The Office of Management and Budget, the White House arm that oversees regulatory actions, didn’t respond to questions from Bloomberg starting the day after the Dec. 14 announcement on how that figure was calculated. A review of the 67 regulations cited as helping drive down costs found many didn’t include cost-benefit calculations.

"I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that $570 million is potentially the cost savings, but they’re not being transparent on how much each action is saving and how it adds up to the $570 million," said Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen.

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The administration’s cost figures also ignore projected benefits for regulations it has blocked, distorting the actual impacts on society, said Denise Grab, a lawyer with the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University’s School of Law. The institute has sued the Trump administration to block some of its regulatory actions. 

One action on the list of 67 – it was actually counted twice because two agencies had to act separately — was an immigration rule the administration enacted in July that left two experts scratching their heads over how it could be considered deregulatory.

The action, by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor, raised the cap on immigrants entering the U.S. to work in seasonal, non-agricultural jobs by as many as 15,000. The original H-2B visa program had been capped at 66,000.

"It’s a stretch to call this deregulatory in any way," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Indeed, instead of lessening the regulatory burden, the regulation imposed additional requirements on businesses that wanted to participate in the expanded visa program, said Vaughan and Laura Reiff, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig LLP and founder of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which lobbies for immigration reform on behalf of businesses.

At least 22 of the 67 deregulatory actions — from allowing imports of persimmons from Japan to the adoption of new electric vehicle safety rules — were adapted from efforts begun under Obama, often with little or no change, according to records.

For example, the list included an Interior Department rule proposed by the Obama administration in June 2016 to allow Alaskan natives to use nonedible parts of migratory birds, like feathers, in handicrafts. It was completed this year, after a minor change.

Likewise, the rule changing the status of grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park was also begun under Obama.

"They have no business taking credit for that," Chris Servheen, who helped craft the regulation before he retired as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said. "It was all started long before the election."

While the list of 67 actions runs up until Sept. 30, federal records show agencies have continued after that date to label actions as deregulatory even though they are just eliminating outdated or unnecessary proposals.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 18 killed a proposed rule that would have prohibited the use of cow byproducts in the manufacture of drugs, according to records. The rule, originally proposed in 2007, was designed to protect against the spread of mad-cow disease, but other actions since then have protected cattle from the disease. Eliminating the rule will have no effect on the cattle industry.

The proposed rule was dropped because it was “scientifically outdated and has been superseded by subsequent public policy,” the FDA said in an emailed statement.

Under Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a number of steps to rescind, delay or undermine environmental regulations issued under the previous administration. The agency put off the carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan and moved to repeal it. It delayed rules on methane leaks from oil and gas equipment, safety requirements on chemical plants and pollution in the water released by coal plants while it moved to rework and ease off on those Obama-era requirements.

But of the 16 deregulatory actions taken by EPA on the administration’s list of 67, six were proposed under Obama and completed without major changes. It also included small actions that are typical under any administration and a few technical measures altering the paperwork that industry must complete to comply with EPA rules.

For example, the list includes an EPA delay of a rule requiring makers of nanoscale compounds, microscopic particles increasingly used in drugs and electronic components, to disclose the known health effects of their products. The delay was just for three months, however, from May 12 to Aug. 14. When the requirements went into effect in August, the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council praised them as a rare example of "some good news" from the EPA.

In another case, Obama’s EPA in 2015 agreed to reconsider monitoring measures for phosphoric acid and phosphate fertilizer that had been set as part of a broader rule in 2014. The EPA proposed the industry-related changes last December, and Pruitt’s EPA ratified and finalized those standards in September.

One action on the administration’s list scrapped a grant program providing federal funds to help pay for construction of public TV and radio stations. In 2010, the Obama administration ruled that money was available from other sources and ended the program. Congress followed suit and hasn’t funded the program since.

“This is a nonsensical rule to include,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Coglianese said. “There’s no benefit to business getting rid of this rule. This is meaningless to have on this list.”

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