A note on politics and policy
This past week as a part of a lawsuit, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s office made public thousands of emails between his office and a number of oil and gas companies, notably Oklahoma-based Devon Energy. The “often chummy” emails reveal that company officials met regularly with Scott Pruitt’s office and wrote much of the language in a number of letters sent to EPA and other federal regulatory agencies by the state’s AG office, in an attempt to halt specific new regulations.
The concerns over Pruitt’s ties to the industry prompted Senate Democrats to call for Pruitt’s confirmation as the head of American environmental enforcement to be delayed, but Senate Republicans were able to simply bring his confirmation to the floor on schedule.
Although these developments are interesting, and the public should perhaps have had knowledge about the content of these emails prior to Scott pruitt’s confirmation, this story and others like it do not exactly fit with the mission of this blog. I want to explore policy changes in Washington, not keep up with the daily political news. The line between these two is thin, and it is often useful to contextualize changes within say, Scott Pruitt’s cozy ties to the oil and gas industry. Moreover, politics is essential to production or stalling of policy especially within the federal government, and as such can heavily determine policy outcomes. I will do my best to insulate policy from politics, while keeping policy change in its proper political context.
Trump signs Executive Order reforming regulatory process
Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday February 24 further targeting regulatory agencies. The Executive Order mandates that each federal agency appoint an officer to carry out policy on regulatory reform. The officer will identify regulations that “inhibit jobs”, “are outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective”, and “impose costs that exceed benefits” and submit this information to the agency. The goal, according to the order, is to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people”. While this may seem like an overly procedural and largely harmless policy change, I argue that in the context of other administration actions and political posturing, this is an important and insidious executive order.
It is true that the regulatory oversight officer would have no institutional power to eliminate rules and regulations, the fact that it exists and is obviously a priority of the administration tells us a lot about a new approach to agency regulation. Indeed, this order should be placed in the context of adviser Steve Bannon’s comments about the “deconstruction” of the administrative state under Trump, President Trump’s comments this weekend that we don’t need around 75 percent of existing regulation, other anti regulatory executive orders, and proposed budget cuts for regulatory agencies. This executive order makes it more difficult to pass new regulation and puts in place mechanisms to phase out existing regulations that are deemed unnecessary. It represents an executive-led and inter-agency approach to dismantling regulation that will likely continue with anti-regulatory agency heads and directed by new executive orders. We have a President who, following previous expansions to the ability of the executive to act as they please, is pursuing his agenda on energy and the environment without, to some degree, the input of Congress. This is significant. Even with a unified government, that could pursue rollback and hamstringing regulation by Acts of Congress (which has happened, true), the President has taken action. There are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps simply President Trump wants to act quickly to reverse the regulatory mechanisms of the state and simply is doing so using his authority. Perhaps, the President is functioning in a system where Congressional Republicans are unwilling politically to do the work of intense regulatory rollback and perhaps suffer consequences at the polls. More waiting and watching is required to answer these questions.
Rumors about other Executive Orders
Although few substantive changes have happened so far this week, there are increasing signs of what is to come. Multiple news outlets have reported that the Trump administration intends to come out with two separate environmental executive orders: ordering EPA to reevaluate its Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS), and instructing the Interior Department to lift a moratorium on the leasing of public lands to industry for coal exploration and mining. The executive order concerning WOTUS is expected shortly. The specifics of the orders are unclear, nor is it known exactly when they will be released. I will be sure to cover the details and implications of those orders if released.
Budget cuts for EPA coming
Although nothing formal has been released, administration officials over the weekend and early this week have made it clear that the FY2018 budget of the federal government will combine around $54 billion in cuts to domestic federal agencies, likely including EPA and the Interior Department. EPA and the State Department were the agencies singled out by administration officials as specific targets of the budget. This will be paired with an equal $54 billion increase in military and defense spending. To put this in context, EPA’s 2017 budget was less than $8.3 billion. In January, Trump EPA transition leader Myron Ebell predicted that the President would seek a $1 billion reduction in EPA’s budget. A one billion dollar cut seems at this point like a conservative estimate. It should be noted, however, that the Republican Congress will have to sign off on Trump’s order, and it will be fascinating to see if Republicans carry through, or balk, on cutting funding for domestic regulatory agencies.