At some point, every president has had to grapple with the fact that he is not a king. This unhappy realization usually comes after they’ve been unable to pass one of their biggest priorities through Congress. Recall Bill Clinton with health care, George W. Bush with social security privatization, and Barack Obama with gun control. Donald Trump has learned this, too, when he tried—and failed—to repeal Obamacare. Having to work with a co-equal branch of government often serves its intended purpose: to prevent the executive from imposing his or her unchecked will on the country.
But that is not the case with regulation. The regulatory process usually doesn’t involve the opposition party, at least beyond eliciting occasional complaints, and it usually draws little public scrutiny. As a result, the president’s regulatory record provides special insight into his undiluted priorities and beliefs.
The Brookings Institution catalogues all new regulatory moves, and it has reported that Trump and his appointees have taken 175 significant regulatory actions since he took office in January 2017. While Trump’s legislative agenda has focused on building a border wall and lowering taxes for wealthy people and businesses, his regulators have mounted sustained attacks on environmental standards, consumer and worker safeguards, and barriers to discrimination. They have consistently favored big businesses and important interest groups over average people. For all his bluster about America’s “forgotten men and women,” a close look at Trump’s regulatory record reveals him to be anything but a populist.
Most presidents use their regulatory authority to nudge the economy in one way or another. The Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, typically focus on promoting competition. Others are designed to simply help Americans, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which is responsible for protecting people from fraud and abuse by financial companies. Partisan disagreements are a regular part of this process. But most of the time, the controversies come down to arguments over a new rule’s relative economic costs and benefits.
On occasion, Trump’s regulators have addressed traditional economic matters, as by creating a fast track for FDA approval of new gene and cell therapies, streamlining procedures authorizing small companies to export natural gas, and proposing a simpler licensing process for commercial space launch vehicles. But their main actions have had little to do with improving the economy. Instead, Trump’s regulators have mounted a sweeping assault on environmental and consumer protections.
Perhaps because climate was one of Obama’s signature regulatory issues, Trump’s EPA moved quickly to roll back new limits on greenhouse gas emissions by coal-fired power plants, which were put in place under Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Trump’s EPA also repealed Obama-era limits on methane emissions by oil and natural gas producers and sidetracked requirements that states track and reduce CO2 emissions on their highways. What’s more, it threw out the previous administration’s rules raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and weakened requirements that oil companies install equipment to control offshore spills, allowed oil drilling on federal lands with endangered species and proposed the same for most of the Outer Continental Shelf, and suspended limits on how many toxic metals a power plant can discharge into surface water. Meanwhile, Trump is the first president since the EPA was established nearly 50 years ago to issue no new regulations strengthening environmental protections.
Nor has he used his regulatory power to beef up protections for consumers and workers. Since healthcare was Obama’s signature legislative achievement, it seems unsurprising that Trump’s regulators would do everything they can to undermine it. Starting in January 2017, they moved quickly to shorten the open enrollment period for Obamacare under the law and watered down the requirements for coverage. They have also proposed ending the Affordable Care Act’s ban on insurers discriminating on the basis of gender, gender identity, or pregnancy. It doesn’t end there. They recently proposed new rules to allow states to certify “short-term health plans” that exclude people with pre-existing conditions, have no caps on out-of-pocket costs, and don’t cover “essential benefits” like hospital care, prescription drugs, and mental health or substance abuse services.
Trump appointees have also made it materially easier for people to be ripped off: they repealed a requirement that payday lenders determine if a borrower can repay a loan before lending them funds; lessened the performance standards that for-profit colleges have to meet before they can accept federal student loans; issued new rules to increase the hours that truck, bus, and school bus drivers can work without resting; expanded the exemptions from minimum wage and overtime regulations; and nullified people’s rights to stop internet service providers from selling their personal information.
Equally disconcerting, the Trump administration regularly uses new rulemaking to advance the conservative social agenda. New regulations make it substantially more difficult for family planning clinics that provide abortion services for low-income people to receive federal dollars, and permit employers to exclude contraceptive services from their health plans if they object on “moral” or “religious” grounds.
Finally, Trump and his agency heads have deliberately weakened regulations to prevent discrimination. They shelved the requirement that communities receiving federal housing funds develop plans to combat housing discrimination based on race, along with guidelines barring auto dealers from charging higher interest rates based on race and allowing transgender students the right to choose their bathrooms. Most recently, they proposed to sharply narrow the circumstances under which colleges and universities have to investigate their students’ allegations of sexual assault.
After almost three years with Donald Trump in the White House, a clear theme has emerged. He and his appointees have used their regulatory authority to enhance the power of big businesses and conservative activist groups and weaken the rights of ordinary people. Despite Trump’s self-branding as the tribune of the working class, his record exposes him as dismissive at best, and hostile at worst, to the people a real populist would be championing.