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Has Trump cut more regulations than any president in history?

“We’ve cut more regulations than any president in history — by far, it’s not even a contest.”
— Donald Trump, interview with Mike Huckabee, Oct. 7, 2017

This column has been updated

President Trump is no shrinking violet when it comes to touting what he regards as his achievements. More often than not, he is wrong.

Contrary to his past statements, he has not signed more bills than any previous president in the first six months, he does not have the biggest defense budget and he has not proposed the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.

So, at first glance, one can imagine we’d be pretty skeptical about his claim about cutting more regulations than any president. But verifying whether it is true or not is not an easy task.

The Facts

In Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter,” issued on Oct. 22, 2016, he pledged that for every federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated. Shortly after taking office, the president signed an executive order that aimed to put this policy into effect. The order also said the cost of any new regulation should be offset by eliminating regulations with the same costs to businesses.

Trump’s effort was immediately challenged in court, with groups such as Public Citizen arguing that the requirement could result in the repeal of lifesaving regulations without any scientific basis. A federal judge hearing the case in August described it as “a shadow regulatory process on top of the regulatory process” but has not issued a ruling.

Trump has also insisted on a regulatory cost allowance for the 2018 fiscal year, with the expectation that each agency will propose “a net reduction in total incremental regulatory costs.” The New York Times has documented how much of the deregulatory review is being conducted by political appointees with industry ties and potential conflicts.

In any case, Trump’s claim is that he’s cut more regulations than any president in history. The conundrum is how to measure that. We consulted with several regulatory experts and they said there was no clear way to do so and no consistent records have been kept. But there are some possible metrics.

First of all, we don’t need to go too far back in history. The modern regulatory state really did not begin until President Richard Nixon signed into law the creation of the Environment Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration almost a half-century ago.

Almost immediately, various presidents began to express concern about excessive regulation. Jimmy Carter in 1978 issued an executive order that introduced the idea of minimizing costs. Carter’s 1980 Economic Report of the President observed that “tools like the regulatory budget may have to be developed” to “make certain that the first problems addressed are those in which regulations are likely to bring the greatest social benefits.”

Indeed, it is worth recalling that important segments of the economy, such as the airline, trucking and railroad industries, were deregulated in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The deregulatory push ultimately led Congress in 1995 to mothball the 108-year-old Interstate Commerce Commission, the nation’s first regulatory agency. Such actions are not be easily identified by counting regulations that are eliminated — and arguably may have greater economic impact than repealing individual rules.

Another problem: The online records of proposed regulations maintained by the Office of Management and Budget only go back to 1995. So we can only easily compare Trump to his immediate predecessors.

One possible measurement is regulations withdrawn. That can be determined from the OMB database for Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and five years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, which shows:

Clinton: 1,824
Bush: 2,632
Obama: 1,814
Trump: 469

Of course, Trump’s presidency has barely started. If you narrow it just to an administration’s first sweep through the regulations, you end up with:

Bush: 181
Obama: 156
Trump: 469

Ronald Reagan also launched a major effort to rein in regulations. So we wanted to at least see how Trump stacked up to Reagan. In June 1981, Reagan issued a statement that said in the first three months, 181 regulations had been “withdrawn, modified or reviewed.”

We can’t tell if Reagan’s withdrawn rules exactly matches up to Trump’s — Trump’s OMB also says another 391 rules were placed under review — but in any case, Reagan’s number is lower than Trump’s. So score one for Trump, at least in terms of raw numbers.

The Reagan statement also said that the volume of federal rules proposed or made final had been cut in half. Trump’s statement says economically significant regulations have been cut in half.

But here’s the rub: Experts say that the amount of withdrawn regulations is not necessarily the best metric, because these are rules that never went into effect.

“What is getting withdrawn wasn’t a regulation yet,” said Susan E. Dudley, director of the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University and a former administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the Bush administration. “It depends on how one defines ‘cut,’ but if it means removing something that is in effect, withdrawals won’t tell much about that.”

But other metrics are even more problematic. Experts frowned on the idea of counting pages in the Federal Register — though they are down for Trump just as they were for Reagan. That’s because a costly rule can run 20 pages or 200 pages, depending on the degree to which the agency responds to public comments, the scope of its regulatory impact analysis, and the complexity of the process or action targeted by the rule. In many cases, the rules of compliance are outlined in “guidance documents,” and not within the published final rule. So page-counting tells you virtually nothing.

There’s another problem: Often it takes another rule to repeal a previous rule. “The Clean Power Plan will be scrapped, but not because it was withdrawn,” noted former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, which tracks regulations. “Instead, it will be replaced by a new rulemaking. It’s just hard to quantify the actual cutback.”

In any case, given the expected litigation concerning the Clean Power Plan — which sought to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants — it may be years before it’s clear whether Trump has actually succeeded in killing the regulations. Courts tend to be wary of regulatory shifts that appear to be politically motivated.

Finally we should note that Trump did take advantage of the 1996 Congressional Review Act, which he used to roll back 14 rules that Obama issued at the end of his administration. The time limit for using the law expired in May, but it had only been used once before, under Bush.

We asked the White House for evidence of Trump’s claim and received this statement from an OMB spokesman: “As far as we are aware, no previous administration has deregulated or withdrawn as many anticipated regulatory actions as this one in this short amount of time, which we expect will result in $0 in net regulatory costs on the economy.”

Update, Nov. 8: Patrick McLaughlin, an economist at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, crunched some numbers for The Fact Checker concerning the increase in “regulatory restrictions” in the Code of Federal Regulations. His computer program searches for words that create binding obligations or prohibitions, such as “shall,” “must,” and “may not.” His research shows that Trump, thus far, has a slower increase in such restrictions than any other recent president in their first year in office. However, it’s not zero, or even negative, but closer to 1 percent.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump may have grounds to brag, but his claim cannot be easily verified. There is no reliable metric on which to judge his claim — or to compare him to previous presidents. Something is clearly happening on the regulatory front, as demonstrated by the number of withdrawn rules. But it’s too soon to evaluate Trump’s record — or for the president to make such sweeping claims. We can’t award Pinocchios or a Geppetto, so we will leave this unrated. Readers are welcome to offer their own ruling.

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“We’ve cut more regulations than any president in history — by far, it’s not even a contest.”
in an interview with Mike Huckabee
Saturday, October 7, 2017