By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Government-sanctioned cruelty makes for shocking images, as the events of the past few weeks demonstrate. People in wheelchairs forcibly dragged from congressional hearing rooms for protesting legislative attempts to strip them of access to affordable health care. The uncertainty on the faces of Puerto Rican parents as they survey the damage to their homes in the wake of Hurricane Maria and wonder when – or if – officials in Washington will come to the aid of their families and those of their fellow citizens.
In a White House speech scheduled for Monday, October 2, President Trump will affirm in no uncertain terms that his administration does not merely tolerate such brazen indifference to our country’s most vulnerable members but intends to make cruelty its official policy going forward.
The purported subject of Trump’s speech is his administration’s deregulatory agenda, or to put it more accurately, his administration’s assault on the regulatory safeguards that, among other things, keep our food and drinking water safe from contamination, our air and water free of harmful pollutants, and our finances secure against corporate cheats and fraudsters. (It’s unsurprising that Trump wants to pivot to a policy issue well within his control – our federal regulatory system – following the spectacular failure of his efforts presiding over a legislative repeal of the Affordable Care Act.)
In particular, we can expect Trump to tout his actions to date to throttle the U.S. system of regulatory safeguards, including the various executive orders he’s issued aimed at rolling back existing protective actions that all Americans, but especially the most vulnerable among us, depend upon as we work to build better lives for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
These orders include his so-called “two-out, one-in” order that directs agencies to identify two existing rules to eliminate or weaken before they issue a new rule and to ensure net cost “savings” for polluters, manufacturers of unsafe products, banks putting the screws to their customers, and a range of other industries in the habit of imposing health, safety, and security burdens on the rest of us. Another notable order seeks to advance this effort by setting up industry-dominated “task forces” within agencies, giving them free rein to comb through the agencies’ rules in secret and pick out those they find most inconvenient to their bottom lines.
We might also expect Trump to use this speech to at least attempt to dress these regulatory attacks in the ill-fitting garb of economic and job-creation policy, though, to be fair, Trump has rarely troubled himself with offering rational justifications for doling out goodies to the wealthy and powerful.
But, while Trump and his administration may temporarily retreat to the comfort of their falsehoods and deceptions, they can never escape the fundamental truths about the vital role that regulatory safeguards play in our society.
Truth 1: Regulations have contributed significantly to our nation’s welfare by delivering enormous benefits. Consider the following data:
- In its most recent report to Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that the total benefits of significant regulations for the past ten years exceeded their costs by a ratio as high as 14-to-1.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the regulatory benefit of the Clean Air Act exceeds its costs by a ratio of 25-to-1. The agency estimates Clean Air Act rules saved 164,300 adult lives in 2010 and will save 237,000 lives annually by 2020.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety standards reduced the traffic fatality rate from nearly 3.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1980 to 1.41 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2006.
- An Endangered Species Act recovery program implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped grow the bald eagle population from just 400 nesting pairs in 1963 to 10,000 nesting pairs in 2007, enabling the agency to remove this uniquely iconic American bird from the Endangered Species List.
Truth 2: A vigorous regulatory system is essential to economic growth and job creation. Consider the following data:
- Dozens of retrospective evaluations of regulations adopted by the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) pursuant to the Regulatory Flexibility Act have found that the regulations were still necessary and that they did not produce significant job losses or have adverse economic impacts for affected industries, including small businesses.
- Several recent catastrophes illustrate the huge costs of failing to regulate when it is appropriate and necessary. The BP oil spill has imposed tens of billions of dollars in damages to the Gulf of Mexico and affected Gulf Coast communities – far more than the cost of complying with regulations that would have prevented this tragedy. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study concluded that the 2008 Wall Street collapse, which might have been avoided through more extensive financial regulation, has cost the U.S. economy as much as $22 trillion.
- In a retrospective review of its 1978 rule to protect textile workers against harmful exposures to “cotton dust,” OSHA found that the rule had spurred technological innovations in the textile manufacturing industry, resulting in significant increases in productivity and profitability for the sector while also achieving a 99-percent reduction in cases of byssinosis (or “brown lung” disease) among textile workers. In particular, OSHA found that in the years prior to the rule’s full implementation, the industry’s productivity grew at a rate of roughly 2.5 percent. In the years after, however, the productivity growth rate had increased to 3.5 percent.
When Trump talks about the “costs” of regulation, he always makes it sound as if costs are created by rules. In fact, it’s not rules that create the costs; it’s the manufacture of unsafe products, the pollution that is a byproduct of that production, or the unsafe working conditions that lead to injuries and deaths. Those costs are created by businesses unwilling to invest in safety unless they’re required to do so. And in the absence of such requirements, they’re perfectly content for the rest of us to pay the price by getting ripped off, getting sick, or getting killed. The regulatory safeguards Trump rails against shift the burden of paying the costs back to the folks who created them, saving lives, preventing illnesses, and protecting workers and consumers along the way.
Trump’s sense of timing has always been impeccably poor, and his administration’s push to gut regulatory safeguards is no exception. It comes amidst a seemingly endless succession of public crises – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the Equifax data breach; the Wells Fargo fake account scandal; the Volkswagen air pollution control defeat devices; and so on – all of which cry out for vigorous implementation and enforcement of protective safeguards.
Such public protections are particularly essential to the most vulnerable members of our society. The harms these crises create are enough to push individuals who are already just barely clinging on into an irrecoverable state of poverty, unable to achieve their full potential. Worse still, these devastating consequences can reverberate to negatively impact the families and communities of which they are a part.
Trump and his administration should be ashamed of themselves. The agenda they’re poised to announce does not warrant plaudits or ceremony. The administration’s attack on public safeguards is not leadership. Nor is it ideology. For the vulnerable families and communities who will be harmed by these actions, this agenda is pure, unvarnished cruelty. No one will come out of this “greater,” least of all the president.