The Trump Administration’s Regulatory Reprieve

Are President Trump’s constant Twitter fights a distraction from his failures—or from his successes?

The answer is a little of both. While everyone is preoccupied with the latest Culture War skirmish started or inflamed on the president’s Twitter feed, their rage and concern is being directed away from some notable failures to achieve his promised agenda. Yet this also makes people less likely to notice the part of his agenda that succeeds best when no one is paying much attention: the Trump administration’s crackdown on runaway regulation.

I would almost say that this strategy is deliberate, if not for the random and uncalculated way it is carried out. Trump starts fights that are smart (standing up for the national anthem against the NFL) and not so smart (repeatedly picking fights with a gold star widow). He does it compulsively, or to be more exact, he does it because this is what he has done for decades, using petty feuds in the media to make himself the center of attention. Before it was Twitter, it was the tabloids. He’s done it for so long and with such success—success at being the center of attention, if nothing else—that he sees no reason to stop now.

But for all the negative effects this approach has on his administration, it has one beneficial effect. There are a few areas where the president has a lot of power to act unilaterally—too much, in most cases—so long as the public isn’t paying all that much attention. Those areas are primarily foreign policy and the management of the regulatory agencies.

On foreign policy, the Trump administration’s record has been mixed. While no one has been paying all that much attention, we have successfully backed rebels who have retaken key territory from ISIS in Syria—but with no clear wider strategy, as shown by the way the defeat of ISIS in Iraq led immediately to a new civil war with the Kurds. The president has the authority to accomplish a lot in foreign policy, if he is focused and providing clear leadership—which Trump shows little interest in doing, particularly in the Middle East.

But when it comes to regulation, Trump does appear to be focused and engaged, and he has chosen cabinet officials who share that focus. Donald Trump is not an ideological person, and I wouldn’t expect him to begin quoting the arguments of free-market economists. But for him this is an issue that is not abstract or ideological. He has a businessman’s concrete, practical annoyance with the tangled web of restrictions the government puts in the way of getting anything done. So it should be no surprise that his administration has rapidly reduced and in a few cases rolled back the flood of regulations from executive agencies.

In the first four months of Trump’s presidency, only 15 new major federal rules were approved, compared to 114 in George W. Bush’s first four months and 93 in Obama’s first four. The Trump administration issued 1,005 minor federal rules in that time, small tweaks to existing regulations, but even that is down more than 25% compared to the first four months of the Bush administration. If this continues for three more years, it will be a major decrease in the activity of federal regulatory agencies.

The centerpiece of this policy is the rollback of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a utopian scheme to remake the entire energy infrastructure of the United States. It was never likely to lead to an economy powered predominantly by solar and wind power, but it was well designed to destroy existing sources of power. Or it was, until EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt terminated it.

This was one of the things I was hoping to get out of the Trump administration (as compensation for all of the damage it is going to do), and for once, I have not been disappointed.

This is one area where I’ve been glad about the haplessness of the Worst Resistance Ever. While they’ve let themselves be distracted by national anthem protests and the latest outrage from the president’s Twitter feed—which, last I checked, is not an official organ of the United States Government—they have not been paying much attention to what the administration is doing on the regulatory level. There have been a few mainstream media reports describing the scope of it and trying to sound alarm bells on the left, but they haven’t inspired any sustained effort to do anything about it.

The president can do a lot unilaterally, and it’s hard to make a president regulate when he doesn’t want to. (Almost as hard as it is to force a president to show leadership in foreign policy when he doesn’t want to, as we saw for the previous eight years.) But if the activist grassroots of the left, the Democratic leadership in Congress, and the mainstream media—I’ll leave it to you to figure out where one of those groups leaves off and the others begin—were to concentrate their efforts on a few key items, they might actually be able to create trouble for the administration. They have long practice in making unnecessary regulations look like the last line of defense against mass death, and they could employ that kind of obfuscation in an attempt to force the administration to change its approach. But they have been too busy with more ephemeral issues. I almost don’t want to draw attention to that, for fear that they will get their act together. Then I see stuff like this and figure that’s not much of a danger.

Or maybe the left is just playing a waiting game, because while President Trump has slowed down the use of regulatory power, he has not actually curtailed the power itself, and the anti-regulatory direction he has set could easily be reversed by a new administration.

Early on, Steve Bannon defined one of the key objectives of Trump’s agenda as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” But it remains undeconstructed, and neither Trump nor Congress shows any sign of moving in that direction. Unlike the great deregulators of the past, who eliminated entire federal agencies, they have merely put the administrative agencies in more conservative hands. They have used the awesome, unaccountable power of those agencies with restraint, for now, but they haven’t permanently curtailed it.

The Trump administration risks having the same legacy as the Obama administration. What is done or undone by executive order lasts only so long as the chief executive remains in office. Without more fundamental reforms, Trump buys a reprieve from the regulatory onslaught, but if he undermines the ability of Republicans to gain and hold the presidency, the reprieve will be very temporary.

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