Just days after taking office, President Trump invited American manufacturers to recommend ways the government could cut regulations and make it easier for companies to get their projects approved.
Industry leaders responded with scores of suggestions that paint the clearest picture yet of the dramatic steps that Trump officials are likely to take in overhauling federal policies, especially those designed to advance environmental protection and safeguard worker rights.
Those clues are embedded in the 168 comments submitted to the government after Trump signed a presidential memorandum Jan. 24 instructing the Commerce Department to figure out how to ease permitting and trim regulations with the aim of boosting domestic manufacturing. The Environmental Protection Agency has emerged as the primary target in these comments, accounting for nearly half, with the Labor Department in second place as the subject of more than one-fifth, according to a Commerce Department analysis.
Among the notable items on industry’s to-do list:
●BP wants to make it easier to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing how often companies must renew their
●A trade association representing the pavement industry wants to preclude the U.S. Geological Survey from conducting what the group says is “advocacy research” into the environmental impact of coal tar. The Pavement Coatings Technology Council says this research could limit what it uses to seal parking lots and driveways.
●The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to reduce the amount of time opponents have to challenge federal approval of projects. Challenges would have to be filed within two years, down from six.
●The Chamber also wants to jettison a requirement that employers report their injury and illness records electronically to the Labor Department so they can be posted “on the internet for anyone to see.”
●And in its 51-page comment, “Make Federal Agencies Responsible Again,” the Associated General Contractors of America recommended repealing 11 of President Barack Obama’s executive orders and memorandums, including one establishing paid sick leave for government contractors.
Three senior administration officials in different departments said the White House is inclined to accept many of these suggestions. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a process that is underway.
Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s senior vice president, said in an interview that the EPA has led the government in issuing “high-cost, high-impact regulations” that harmed businesses. The Chamber estimated that rules issued under Obama would cost businesses more than $70 billion annually.
“Now we have an administration who’s interested” in streamlining federal approvals and rules, Bradley said, and is providing relief “from a regulatory onslaught that occurred, principally, during the prior administration.”
Across the government, administration officials are beginning to flesh out how they can scale back rules imposed by Obama — and, in some cases, his predecessors. Officials are launching websites to take suggestions, holding meetings with chief executives and industry representatives, and drawing up recommendations to submit to the White House.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is scheduled to submit his report on stimulating domestic manufacturing toward the end of next month.
“This is the first time any administration has canvassed the private sector to find the worst regulatory and permitting problems, and it is axiomatic that you can’t solve a problem until you have identified it,” Ross said, adding that officials were “refining their recommendations” now “to take responsible action. We look forward to working further with American workers and businesses, in manufacturing and other sectors, to unshackle the innovative spirit that made this country great.”
The National Association of Manufacturers began preparing its response the day Trump signed the memorandum, according to Rosario Palmieri, its vice president for labor, legal and regulatory policy. On March 27, the NAM hosted a meeting at its offices in which representatives from about 100 companies discussed their recommendations with senior Commerce staff.
“This has a tremendous opportunity to be very successful and result in real burden reductions,” Palmieri said.
More than 80 percent of the comments Commerce received on the presidential memorandum came from trade associations or manufacturers.
The campaign to roll back regulations has sparked concern among liberal advocacy groups and some former Obama administration officials, who said the federal government must keep long-term consequences in mind as it considers unwinding rules aimed at protecting the environment and workers.
“At a time when many CEOs are focused on the short term and looking to maximize their profitability each quarter, I believe that a lot of their aversion to these regulations reflects a short-term mind-set that values reducing costs over anything else,” said Jeffrey Zients, who worked on regulatory matters while holding two top economic posts in Obama’s White House. “That’s unfortunate, because well-crafted regulations are an important part of creating sustainable and fair economic prosperity in the long run.”
Marcus Peacock, who served briefly as a senior White House budget adviser under Trump before joining the Business Roundtable advocacy group this month, said previous efforts to streamline regulations “have had difficulty sticking as strongly as they should have.”
But several of Trump’s earliest actions could give this latest drive more punch. Trump signed an executive order requiring that many agencies eliminate two regulations for each new one they propose and that these changes entail no increased cost. Another executive order established a regulatory reform officer and task force in each department.
Several previous administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, have sought to eliminate regulations that were deemed burdensome. Obama launched a “regulatory lookback” in 2011 that solicited input from the public and saved $13 billion — mostly in paperwork reductions. The Transportation Department, for example, changed a rule requiring truck drivers to file reports on their vehicles every day they hit the road to one mandating reports only when they identify problems or have reason to think there’s an issue with their trucks.
But that effort received a tepid response from industry. Some groups, including the Chamber, said the scope was too narrow and that they did not have sufficient time to conduct a full review. In a March 26, 2011, letter, the Chamber wrote the Labor Department that it was given less than a month to submit comments: “This compressed time frame has limited our ability to identify regulations that may deserve attention.”
“It’s not like industry sent us a wish list of what it wanted done,” said one former Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.
Janet McCabe, who helped craft some of the rules now in jeopardy as head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said her agency had sought comment from across the ideological spectrum. That contrasted with how Trump2’s EPA is seeking public comment, she said.
“The signals that they’re sending through the way they describe their initiative is the audience they’re worried about, to the exclusion of everybody else, is industry,” McCabe said.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said his advocacy organization did not comment and has been struggling to keep up with the “overwhelming, pretty much nonstop assault” on rules put in place under Obama. “The big picture is at every turn, once the transition began, every special interest in the country was signaled, ‘Hey, it’s all you can eat,’ ” Cook said.
Several business advocates, for their part, say the shift represents a course correction. The National Association of Roofing Contractors wrote in its submission to Commerce, “For years, the Obama Administration consistently refused to address the many concerns of NRCA members when issuing new regulations.”
Dan Bosch, senior manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business, said his members are still “in limbo” as they wait to see if Trump’s team targets regulations they oppose.
The NFIB has suggested a raft of changes, including one that would designate the Commerce Department — instead of the State Department — as the agency in charge of approving pipelines and other projects that cross borders. The federation says the lead agency should have “commercial expertise and an interest in encouraging business.”
The NFIB has also objected to a policy adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration allowing representatives of an outside union to tour a nonunion shop with an OSHA inspector. Bosch said it is an invasion of privacy to have someone who’s not an employee “coming into your business and trying to point out things that, potentially, those employees should mention.”
But David Michaels, who headed OSHA under Obama and is now a professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, said, “The culture of the trade associations in Washington is to attack any new regulation as burdensome, even though the empirical evidence is that they’re easily met, they’re not burdensome and they save lives.”
“But injured workers don’t have a voice in Washington,” he added. “Trade associations do.”