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Tuesday, 31 January 2017 06:33

Trump Takes Two Steps Backward in Public Protection Regulations

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32526771855 f1e4ccf6f8 zDonald Trump signing one of his recent executive orders. (Photo: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann)

On January 30, President Trump signed an executive order that will make the United States less safe by rolling back regulations that protect the public. The best way to describe Trump's regulatory strategy is one step forward, two steps backward.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and chair of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, has written an analysis of the action, in which he states:

The idea that two rules should be eliminated for each one adopted has no rational basis. Rules should be considered on their own merits. Existing rules were adopted through a deliberative notice-and-comment process, subject in many cases to challenging litigation. Absent a showing that they are no longer justified, there’s just no rationale for why they should be eliminated to clear the way for new ones.

CNBC notes the appropriate concern of critics of the action:

Critics of Trump's economic and regulatory agenda have raised concerns that his administration will reduce protections for consumers and the environment in an effort to help businesses. Many of the specific regulations Trump has criticized relate to environmental protection.

Trump, in a 1984 "newspeak"-style claim, is arguing that his executive order is just an effort to institute "normalized control" of the regulation process, when it is in fact opening the dam to laissez-faire business practices that threaten public safety and consumer rights. Among the names for the executive order might be "buyer beware" or "pollution is your problem, not corporate America's" or "you don't need to know what you are eating," among others.

A key emphasis of the executive order is that there will be no additional budget dollars allowed for regulations in fiscal year 2017 -- and perhaps beyond. What is equally significant to Weissman is that the regulations (those added and those revoked) will be judged by their monetary cost and not by their overall benefit to people in the US. Weissman writes scathingly of this approach:

The executive order (EO) directs consideration of costs but not benefits of rules. There is no conceivable rational justification for such an approach. In fact, using conservative accounting methodologies the U.S. Offices of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) of the last two administrations -- Republican and Democrat -- found that benefits of their major rules consistently outdistanced costs by at least 2-1 and as much as 14-1(depending on high- and low-end estimates). Benefits significantly outweigh costs for virtually every individual major rule.

Pat Garafolo, the assistant managing editor for opinion at US News & World Report, bluntly derides the de-regulation executive order:

I've explained before why this notion is a ridiculous one: Adhering to a random cap means either leaving necessary regulations unimplemented or throwing out other rules for no good reason. And that leaves aside the problems inherent with figuring out the "cost" of any one regulation. Sure, businesses may complain about the dollars they spend complying with a rule, but preventing people from getting cancer due to exposure to a toxic material is worth quite a bit more, I'd wager, even if it doesn't immediately show up on a balance sheet somewhere....

But this order is just another facet of the Trump con: playing the populist while doing things that make corporate America and Wall Street clap with glee.

Although one could argue that institutional inertia will keep the executive order from having immediate impact, there are many Obama administration regulations in the pipeline that are now in limbo. In addition, there is the theoretical threat, from a long-term perspective, of self-perpetuating deregulation. That is to say -- to use the analogy we began with -- you only move backward by taking two steps back for each step forward. Similarly, as a result of Trump's action, the overall number of regulations can only result in an ongoing reduction, which is the White House's goal. To implement a regulation that benefits the public good, an agency might have to offer two other regulations that actually promote public health and consumer interests.

Furthermore, in a Trump administration new regulations are more likely to favor industry, finance and the Chamber of Commerce, in general. Thus, Trump-appointed department and agency administrators would be more likely to adopt a regulation with a potentially adverse public impact -- and offer to junk two beneficial regulations to people in the US in return. In such a case, the executive branch's regulatory process would be taking three steps backward.