by Eleanor Clift · April 21, 2017
It must be shocking for a president elected on his promise to rack up so many wins that we’d tire of winning to approach the 100-day mark with no real legislative achievement. White House aides desperate to load up the president’s scorecard are claiming a bevy of rollbacks of Obama-era regulations as the most impactful measures that have passed Congress since the new administration took office.
That’s true—but it’s also true that these measures, taken together, are deeply unpopular with the broader public. A week after White House legislative affairs director Marc Short urged reporters to pay more attention to President Donald Trump’s prolific use of an obscure twenty-year-old law, the Congressional Review Act, to overturn protections put in place by his predecessor, Trump kept the media away from two of his most controversial signings.
With no cameras to record the moment, he repealed online privacy protections for consumers, and he signed a measure removing a rule from the final days of the Obama administration to prevent governors from withholding federal funding from health care providers if they provide contraception and abortion services.
A partial de-funding of Planned Parenthood satisfies his conservative base, but why would Trump pull the plug on Internet privacy protections?
“You would be very hard-pressed to find a single person in the United States not connected to the telecom industry who believed this was a good thing,” said Robert Weissman, president of nonprofit consumer rights group Public Citizen. “It was a big deal to Comcast and Verizon.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the CRA is a nifty mechanism the Trump administration is using to pay back corporate donors and lobbyists, roll back protections for consumers, and advance a conservative agenda on the environment and women’s health.
“CRAs are boring and complicated for people who don’t think about policy, but that’s all they’ve got,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way. He predicts their actions will come back to bite the GOP in next year’s congressional elections. “Undoing environmental regulations to make the air and water dirtier, is that what you voted for?”
President Bill Clinton signed the CRA into law in 1996. It was part of the anti-government fervor unleashed by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Weissman at Public Citizen called it “a kind of gentle offering to make the rest of Gingrich’s house of horrors go away.”
Before Trump latched onto it, the law was used only once by President George W. Bush, who repealed an ergonomics rule that Clinton had put in place. It had to do with repetitive motion injuries, and the rule would have forced large employers to take steps to mitigate those injuries. UPS among others vociferously opposed the rule, and got it rolled back.
“You can almost like a laser trace these back to industries that wanted to see the rule repealed,” said Lisa Gilbert with Public Citizen. “This is a story of industry influence.”
In Washington, it’s a familiar story—just not the one that Trump ran on when he promised to “drain the swamp.”
The CRA allows the incoming administration to repeal with a simple majority in the House and Senate within sixty legislative days any regulation put in place during the final six months of the previous administration.
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Obama did a burst of progressive rulemaking at the end of his eight years that he could have done a lot earlier. The question arises: Why didn’t the Obama administration issue regulations earlier in the year?
“He was afraid of being too political,” said Weissman, “And at the beginning of 2016, not many people thought Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton.”
The window for additional CRAs closes on April 28th, with the tally so far of 13 passing through the House and Senate and signed into law, and two more having passed the House and awaiting action in the Senate. Another seven are teed up and ready to go if the House chooses to act. (Public Citizen has a user-friendly chart at RulesatRisk.org.)
The first one out of the box right after Trump took office was an Obama-era rule requiring oil companies to disclose how much they’re paying foreign governments in royalties. It was seen as an anti-corruption measure, and it quickly came out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as head of ExxonMobil had lobbied hard against the rule. Its repeal was reported as a gift to the oil lobby.
Another early gift went to the NRA, when the Senate passed with 57 votes (all 52 Republicans and 5 pro-gun Democrats) and Trump signed into law a measure undoing an Obama-era law that blocked some 75,000 people from buying a gun because they had been deemed incapable of handling their financial affairs because of mental illness.
It’s not immediately apparent what Trump’s core supporters are getting out of these CRAs. When he overturned the Stream Protection rule, allowing mining companies to dump pollutants into nearby streams, Public Citizen pointed out, “It isn’t coastal Democrats whose crops won’t grow, whose drinking water will be poisoned and whose children will end up in the hospital. It’s the rural working-class voters who backed Trump and live close to these drill sites whose families will suffer the most.”
A prepaid card rule issued by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is rumored next on the GOP hit list. It has safeguards against fraud and unauthorized charges for consumers who use prepaid credit cards. It’s obvious which industry would benefit from its repeal.
The White House says its anti-regulatory agenda is designed to create jobs and spur the economy, logic that doesn’t always apply. When Short briefed reporters early this month, claiming a “dramatic impact” on the economy with $10 billion in savings over twenty years, he was asked, “If the purpose is to create jobs and stimulate the economy, how is repealing Internet privacy rules doing that? What is the justification?”
He didn’t have much of an answer other than the “totality” of these measures helps lift the burden of regulation.
“It’s a story that’s not been told,” Short said.
Telling that story is not going to get Trump the credit he wants at the 100-day mark. Repealing a bunch of regulations with party-line votes is not much of an achievement. It’s more like business as usual for the special interests.