When it comes to investigating suspected wrongdoing and enforcing its regulations, the new rules also require the department “where feasible, foster greater private-sector cooperation in enforcement.”
“This effort enhances the Department’s regulatory process by providing greater transparency and strengthening due process in enforcement actions,” Chao said in a statement.
Across the board the Trump administration has been seeking to roll back government rules, in what it says is an effort to free the economy from red tape. But critics of the approach say that it rewards polluters and puts public safety and the environment at risk.
The new Transportation Department action formalized a Trump administration requirement that for each regulatory step a department takes, it has to undertake two deregulatory moves. In practice, DOT says it has well exceeded that standard, reaching a ratio of 23 for 1 in 2018.
The result: The department says since President Trump’s inauguration it has saved businesses and consumers $3.7 billion in costs that would have been imposed by federal regulations.
Chao personally touted the figure in a speech in Florida this week, but it’s not clear which industries or specific companies have benefited or how the public at large might have lost out as rules have been cut.
Chao told the audience in Florida that cutting regulations can help the department pursue its important safety work.
“When we get rid of unnecessary, burdensome regulations, that helps safety because we’re focused on what’s really important,” Chao said.
The rules announced Thursday take several internal department policies, parts of which have been in effect since 2017, and place them into the federal rules. They also build on two executive orders Trump signed in October. They are being issued without the chance for the public to comment and can go into effect immediately because they deal with the department’s inner workings.
But that also means a future administration could also fairly easily repeal the changes.
The announcement was welcomed by business groups, who say the new rules will make the process of writing and interpreting regulations more transparent and ensure that changes that could have outsized economic effects will get needed scrutiny.
“It makes it streamlined throughout all the agencies within the Department of Transportation,” said Ed Mortimer, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But consumer groups have faulted the administration’s approach. Amit Narang, a researcher at advocacy organization Public Citizen, said the new rules will hamper its work.
“This new policy will largely prevent DOT from doing new safety rules,” he said. “It will also make it harder, not easier, for DOT to issue new regulations onboarding new technologies like drones and automated vehicles.”
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said his staff was reviewing the new rules and that he planned to follow up with Chao.
“I am concerned about the safety and transparency implications of the final rule Secretary Chao is touting,” he said.
The Transportation Department and its agencies have a sweeping set of responsibilities to ensure safety of the airways, roads, railroads and pipelines. It has been under scrutiny in recent months over its relationship with the private industries it oversees.
The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, has faced questions about the extent to which it gave Boeing the authority to review the safety of its 737 Max jet before the plane was involved in two deadly crashes that killed a total of 346 people.
And Consumer Reports concluded that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s rate of investigations into defective cars reached an all-time low in 2017, alarming road safety advocates.
The new rules instruct the department’s investigators to be upfront with companies as they use their enforcement power, saying they “must not use these authorities as a game of ‘gotcha’ with regulated entities.”
“DOT should promptly disclose to the affected parties the reasons for the investigative review and any compliance issues identified or findings made,” the rules read.
NHTSA also has been closely involved in rolling back emission standards for cars and SUVs, one of Trump’s signature environmental moves.
That effort has shown how business has not lined up uniformly behind the administration’s deregulatory stance, especially when changes could undermine investments companies have made based on assumptions about future standards. Several carmakers formed a pact with the state of California, saying they will abide by tougher emissions rules, while others sided with the federal government.
When it comes to new technology, the department has largely backed away from imposing new rules on drone operations and self-driving cars. Officials say they want to ensure that they don’t stifle innovation, but that approach has been challenged by some in Congress, especially after a self-driving Uber SUV struck and killed a woman in Arizona last year.
The changes announced Thursday could make it more difficult for the department to turn to new regulations to tackle the challenges.
Among them is a requirement that proposals expected to have an impact of $100 million or more on the economy would have to go through an extra public step in the rulemaking process, potentially adding months or more to the work. That policy has already affected a long-overdue rule on warning systems for rear seat belts.
Mortimer said it’s right that the biggest ticket proposals need the extra look.
“Our view is significant changes in rulemakings deserve scrutiny,” he said.
While the administration’s deregulatory efforts have prompted high-profile clashes, other moves have been made with less controversy.
Among the changes made by the Transportation Department is the repeal of a Federal Railroad Administration requirement that locomotive cabs include a badge certifying that a noise emission test has been passed.
And the Federal Highway Administration got rid of a century-old rule that prohibited federal money being spent on patented road technologies. Transportation Builder magazine hailed that change on its cover under the tagline: “Win-ovation.”