December 17, 2018
By Emily Atkin
The president isn’t just erasing his predecessor’s accomplishments. He’s trying to destroy government regulation as we know it.
Since reentering politics several years ago, Donald Trump has defined himself in opposition to a single figure: Barack Obama. He was the leading proponent of birtherism in 2011 and continued to promote the conspiracy theory publicly until 2015. (He reportedly has remained a birther in private.) Some believe Trump only decided to run for president because Obama made fun of him once. In declaring his candidacy, Trump described Obama as a “negative force” who was “not a leader.” And his campaign platform, such as it was, centered on undoing Obama’s legacy: He pledged to reverse Obama’s immigration policies, repeal Obamacare, and, in the words of running mate Mike Pence, undo “every single Obama executive order.”
He has governed as promised. “Trump is obsessed with Obama,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote last year, noting that “much of what Trump has accomplished—and it hasn’t been much—has been to undo Obama’s accomplishments, like pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement and reversing an Obama-era rule that helped prevent guns from being purchased by certain mentally ill people.” He concluded, “For Trump, the mark of being a successful president is the degree to which he can expunge Obama’s presidency.”
Two years into Trump’s presidency, however, it’s clear that he aspires to undo more than just the Obama era. Some of his most high-profile actions have sought to reverse decades of progress—by Democratic and Republican administrations alike—in protecting the environment, workers’ rights, and public health. If Trump succeeds, his own legacy won’t be defined by his erasure of Obama’s accomplishments so much as the destruction of the modern regulatory state as we know it.
Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, last week announced a plan to rewrite the Clean Water Rule, a 2015 regulation which ensured that small bodies of water like wetlands and streams would be protected by the Clean Water Act of 1972. But the new rule, if implemented, would do much more than just reverse an Obama-era protection. “This would be taking a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act and rolling things back to a place we haven’t been since it was passed,” Blan Holman of the Southern Environmental Law Center told the Los Angeles Times.
Vetoed by President Richard Nixon but overridden by Congress, the Clean Water Act originally only gave federal protection to traditional “navigable” waters—i.e., water that can be navigated by boat. But the bodies of water covered by the law were expanded several times over the years. George H. W. Bush implemented a policy that broadened federal protection for more wetlands, and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton strengthened Clean Water Act protections even further.
The EPA’s new rule would effectively erase many of those developments, giving federal protections only to permanent bodies of water, and only to wetlands directly adjacent to very large bodies of water. In some states, that means more than 70 percent of wetlands would lose their safeguards, according to the BBC.
The Clean Water Rule isn’t the Trump administration’s only attempt to revert America to a less enlightened era that long predates Obama. In April, the White House proposed dramatically weakening the Endangered Species Act, the immensely successful wildlife protection law signed by Nixon in 1973. Trump’s move represented “the most sweeping set of changes in decades,” the New York Times reported, eliminating “longstanding language” about how to most effectively protect plants and animals facing extinction.
The administration is also proposing to effectively gut the National Environmental Policy Act. Another bedrock environmental protection law signed by Nixon, it ensures that environmentally important land isn’t bulldozed solely in the name of economic development. “The Trump administration is taking a sledgehammer to the review process that allows scientists and the public to have a say on federal projects that harm clean air, water and wildlife,” said Paulo Lopes of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is the beginning of the largest rollback in the history of the National Environmental Policy Act….”
And earlier this year, Trump’s EPA loosened a Clinton-era rule intended to limit toxic air pollution from major industrial polluters.
But environmental policy isn’t the only area where Trump’s deregulatory efforts extend beyond the Obama era. In November, the Federal Communications Commission repealed a Nixon-era rule prohibiting a single company from owning a newspaper and television and radio stations in the same town. That rule was “developed and implemented by Republicans,” according to Politico, to prevent the monopolization of local news markets by a single company. Last year, the Department of Labor proposed a new rule to replace Obama-era regulations on tipped wages. If the rule takes effect, tipped workers would no longer own their tips, “a custom that dates to the 1974 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act,” The Washington Post noted.
The White House is also proposing to “streamline” nuclear safety regulations that have been in place since 2001 and eliminate pet food safety inspection requirements that have been in place since 1988.
Trump has not succeeded in rewriting or repealing any of these rules yet; it’s a time-consuming process. First, the public is invited to comment on the proposal. Those comments are then taken into consideration in drafting the final proposal, which, inevitably, faces lawsuits. Some of these proposals may be rejected by the courts; many of Trump’s proposals to weaken Obama-era environmental regulations already have been. But some, surely, will survive.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, his chief strategist at the time, Steve Bannon, famously said that the new president sought the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” That effort is fully underway, as Trump keeps agencies chronically understaffed and unable to adequately enforce the regulations they’re charged with implementing.
What’s really happening, though, is more sinister: the weaponization of the administrative state. The industry interests and ideologues Trump has selected to lead major government agencies have both the will and the knowledge not only to gut existing regulations, but create new and lasting ones that undo protections that have stood for decades.
“The regulation industry is one business I will absolutely put an end to on day one,” Trump promised in the weeks before being elected president. At the time, it was assumed he was referring to Obama’s legacy. But his words should have been taken more literally. He had a much more ambitious goal, it turns out—a deregulatory crusade that likely will guide his next two years in office. Expunging that legacy will take at least as long, but its harm to human well-being in the meantime can never be undone.