By David Rosen, Public Citizen
2019 has been a rough year for regulation, in no small part because of the escalating war on regulation led by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans at the behest of private industry. We’ve put together a list of some of the worst rollbacks and deregulation-driven disasters that happened this year, in no particular order. Unfortunately, there were far too many to choose from.
It’s worth noting that the public did not ask for these measures. Time and again, polls show that large bipartisan majorities oppose regulatory rollbacks, both specifically and in general. These harmful and costly moves are giveaways to corporate interests and big business lobbyists who have captured the regulatory system.
The vaping crisis stemmed from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s failure to regulate e-cigarettes or ban flavored vapes in 2016, thanks to a team of corporate-friendly regulators who put vape shop profits ahead of public health risks. By the end of the decade, more than 6.2 million teenagers were addicted to vaping, due to youth-targeting marketing campaigns and highly addictive nicotine pods. In a matter of months, the vaping crisis wiped out decades of success in reducing youth tobacco use. In 2019, vapers started ending up in the hospital and dying. The culprit, which as of mid-December hospitalized more than 2,400 and killed 52, is believed to be Vitamin E Acetate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed flavored vape ban, intended to combat the youth vaping epidemic, went up in smoke due to political and industry pressure.
In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. Then in March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, another 737 Max, crashed right after takeoff, and all 157 people on board perished. In response, all Max flights were grounded around the world. Both crashes were caused by the failure of an automated system designed to prevent the plane from stalling. In December, Boeing halted production of the 737 Max – and it could be months before the existing planes return to service – if ever. The crisis exposed the Federal Aviation Administration’s practice of allowing aircraft manufacturers to self-regulate; companies oversee certification of their own airplane safety systems, leaving federal officials a virtually nonexistent role in civilian aircraft safety.
In September, the Trump administration repealed the Clean Water Rule, which had been put in place in 2015 to protect streams, wetlands and seasonal bodies of water from chemical and industrial pollutants. By significantly curtailing the reach of the Clean Water Act, the Trump administration is turning back the clock to the 1970s, when rivers caught fire, beach closures and fish kills were common and most of our nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing or swimming. Even worse, the rollback threatens the drinking water of 117 million Americans and 60% of our nation’s freshwater. Deep-pocketed developers, the fossil fuel industry and mining companies aggressively pushed the Trump administration for this repeal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean car standards, put in place to increase fuel efficiency and reduce tailpipe emissions, to date have saved consumers $64 billion at the pump. Over the next few years, those standards were set to double fuel economy and cut global warming pollution in half for cars sold in 2025. But in May, the Trump administration proposed rolling them back at the behest of the auto industry. Then in September, the administration revoked California’s authority to set its own clean car standards, which it has done for decades. After feigning ambivalence over the summer, the auto industry sided with the administration in its lawsuit over California’s standards.
A Public Citizen report in September found that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) keeps refusing to prosecute corporations that repeatedly break the law. The DOJ’s chronic refusal to bring criminal prosecutions against big banks, big pharma and other big businesses that violate the law has led to a failure to deter repeat offenders. The DOJ increasingly relies on deferred prosecution agreements that prosecutors and corporate defense attorneys negotiate behind closed doors to keep the largest corporations out of the criminal justice system. Of the 38 repeat offender corporations identified in the report, 36 are major corporations that have appeared on the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s largest publicly traded corporations. Half of these repeat offenders are banks or financial corporations.
In December, the Trump administration finalized a set of rules that are estimated to remove 700,000 unemployed people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. One of the rules, which will take effect on April 1, 2020, makes it more likely that states will impose onerous, duplicative work requirements on SNAP recipients. Many SNAP beneficiaries depend on this program to feed their children and elderly dependents. One of the other rules will mean that almost a million children will no longer automatically qualify for free school lunches. In total, the rules cut $2.5 billion a year in funding for the SNAP program. Both the Koch and DeVos families heavily fund the conservative organization – the Foundation for Government Accountability – which pushed for this cruel policy.
In August, the Trump administration’s U.S. Department of the Interior finalized new rules that would dramatically scale back the Endangered Species Act – limiting protections for threatened species, how factors like climate change can be considered in listing decisions and the review process used before projects on their habitat are approved. The Endangered Species Act specifically prohibits economic factors from being taken into consideration, but the new rule would change that. Oil and gas companies, utilities and ranchers pushed for this rollback – the last thing we need amid a global extinction crisis fueled in part by climate change.
In August, the Trump administration proposed a far-reaching rule rolling back methane emission limits. Specifically, the rule would eliminate requirements that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and curb methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities. The rule also would reopen the question of whether the EPA even has the legal authority to regulate methane as a pollutant. Methane is at least 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide and represents nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. While this rollback divided the energy, auto and utilities industries, it came at the direct request of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, whose members were caught on tape giddy with laughter at their unprecedented access to the Trump administration.
In September, the U.S. Department of Labor finalized an overtime pay rule, which sets the threshold under which salaried workers are automatically entitled to overtime pay (time and a half). A much stronger rule, published in 2016, raised the threshold from $23,660 per year to $47,476 a year. But the Trump administration abandoned that rule, setting the threshold at $35,568 a year. The new lower threshold leaves behind more the 8 million workers who would have received overtime protections under the Obama administration’s higher threshold, totaling $1.2 billion in lost overtime wages per year. Unsurprisingly, the retail and restaurant industries have fought to pay workers as little overtime as possible.
In September, the U.S. Department of Energy released two rules rolling back commonsense energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that would have taken effect in January 2020. One rule would eliminate efficiency standards for about half of the six billion light bulbs used in homes and businesses. The other rule would eliminate standards for “A-lamps,” the pear-shaped bulbs that make up the other half of light bulbs. This rollback will lead to the equivalent of 8 million cars worth of pollution and cost consumers $14 billion a year. Light bulb manufacturers, such as General Electric, pushed for this senseless and costly reversal.
As we head into an election year, we expect to see more dangerous and costly regulatory rollbacks aimed at rewarding Trump’s corporate and billionaire megadonors. And in 2020, we expect the courts – now packed with right-wing ideologues – to join and escalate the war on public protections. These are dark days for public health, public safety and our environment, but we’ll never stop fighting for stronger safeguards.