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Trump stretches meaning of deregulation in touting achievements

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President Donald Trump’s administration has had some victories in its push for deregulation, such as the FCC’s vote to roll back net neutrality regulations in December. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — 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 Another repealed a grant program that hasn’t been funded since 2011.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 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.”

An earlier 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’ repeal of 15 regulations and the Federal Communications Commission’s vote in December 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.

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 news 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 2-for-1, the ratio was 22-to-1, he said.

“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.

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

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 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.

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 in 2017, after a minor change.

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

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.

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.

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.

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