The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The White House touts Trump’s deregulation. It’s actually been a bust.

President Trump during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House on Oct 24.
President Trump during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House on Oct 24. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Last week, amid damning new testimony in the impeachment inquiry, the White House tried to change the subject by touting one of its supposed wins: President Trump’s “historic deregulation.”

“We are now reducing the size, scope, and cost of Federal regulations for the first time in decades, and we are already seeing the incredible results,” Trump said. In a Cabinet meeting, senior officials likewise offered inflated economic numbers about Trump’s “gangbusters” deregulatory achievements.

In reality, Trump’s regulatory rollback has largely been a bust. In some cases, in fact, it’s been an outright fraud: The Trump administration has added bureaucracy and uncertainty for businesses that it either willfully misunderstands or overtly dislikes.

Consider a list of Trump’s major deregulatory efforts, many of which involve allowing companies to pollute more.

Yes, there are a few identifiable, isolated winners from this agenda. Like, imagine you run a company whose business model depends on dumping lead, mercury or arsenic into the water; pumping methane or fine particulates into the air; or using pesticides that give kids brain damage. Sure, recently loosened restrictions on these toxic activities might fatten your profit margins.

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But whether such policy changes significantly boost the overall  economy is a different question entirely.

One reason to distrust the administration’s claims about these regulatory rollbacks: In its official cost-benefit analyses of such changes, it has used a lot of shady — one might say dishonest — assumptions. In other words, it’s cooking the books.

For instance, in some cases it has thrown out solid scientific studies that happen to produce inconvenient results. In others, it has disqualified large categories of benefits historically counted in such assessments. It has also arbitrarily scaled back estimates for the social cost of carbon. And so on.

These are all wonky, technical accounting changes that go largely unnoticed by the public. That’s by design. The goal is to make Trump’s deregulatory efforts look like they’re turbocharging the economy.

In fact, even some of the companies the Trump administration claims to be helping have protested that they’re being harmed. As a result, several major deregulatory changes have faced opposition not just from the usual tree-huggers and public-health advocates, but from industry, too. That’s been true for the administration’s laxer requirements for methane and mercury emissions, as well as its automotive fuel-efficiency standards.

In those cases — as with the trade wars — the Trump administration seems plainly confused about what policies will be “pro-business.” In others, though, its regulatory changes seem deliberately anti-business. Or at least they seem designed to hurt certain disfavored businesses or populations.

Such as: legal immigrants and anyone who attempts to employ them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has stretched out processing times for visa approvals and begun demanding time-consuming new paperwork from employers seeking to hire skilled workers. For instance, employers have been asked to document every possible project a prospective immigrant employee might work on over the next three years.  

Even when such documents are handed over and approved, the agency has issued skilled-worker visas valid for periods much shorter than the standard three-year duration that employers have expected and planned around — instead granting visas good for as short as a single day. In at least one case, Citizenship and Immigration Services mailed out a worker’s visa three weeks after it expired.

Maybe the agency is just incompetent. But these kinds of policies, alongside skyrocketing visa denial rates, seem intended to make life more expensive and uncertain for skilled immigrants and the companies that depend on them.

Which is a shame, given research suggesting that making the U.S. skilled-immigration system more restrictive has the unintended effect of pushing jobs and innovation outside of the United States.

Most of these immigration-related policy changes have taken place secretly, without going through the notice-and-comment rulemaking process required by law. That’s despite Trump’s new executive order that bans “secret or unlawful bureaucratic interpretations of rules and guards against unfair or unexpected penalties for non-compliance.”

But even regulations that have gone through the formal rulemaking process haven’t always met the Trump administration’s own stated commitment to reducing red tape and business costs.

Take the new family planning “gag rule,” which prevents reproductive health clinics that receive federal funds from even referring patients to outside abortion services. Or another new Trump administration rule allowing health-care professionals to discriminate against LGBTQ patients in the name of “religious freedom.” In both these cases, the Trump administration didn’t bother even trying to cook the books; by the administration’s own economic cost-benefit analyses, both rules  have high compliance costs for affected firms and zero quantified benefits.

For years, Republicans have claimed Democratic policies are about “picking winners and losers.” The Trump administration’s forte, it seems, is in solely picking the losers.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Republicans’ deregulation is hurting consumers. A new bill from Democrats could help.

The Post’s View: Why would the Trump administration weaken a rule that could prevent another financial crisis?

David Von Drehle: Trump’s economy was on fire two years ago. But voters have a short memory.

Robert J. Samuelson: Trump’s endless war on regulation

Robert Gebelhoff: The hidden victims of Trump’s deregulatory agenda: Nursing home residents