By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Last week, the Trump administration released the annual Draft Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations. As befitting this auspicious occasion, the administration pulled out all the stops: targeted op-eds from high-ranking administration officials; relevant operatives dispatched to the leading Sunday morning talk shows; and even a televised press conference with the president himself.
Just kidding. They buried it. Quietly. Late on a Friday afternoon. When Congress was away on recess.
And even though it’s already February, this was the 2017 draft report, not the 2018 one. The data on offer run through the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 – that is, the end of September of 2016. (For context, that’s roughly one month before my daughter was born. She’s walking now and her vocabulary encompasses three-and-a-half words.) The final 2017 report should have been out months ago, let the alone the draft, which is presented for public inspection and comment. Indeed, we should be expecting the draft 2018 report, containing data through Fiscal Year 2017, soon. (And not for nothing, the Trump administration never bothered issuing the final 2016 report, which would have followed up on the draft report issued during the last year of the Obama administration.)
And if you’re wondering if the backdoor release of the draft 2017 report is indicative of an administration’s desire to disavow its existence altogether, just wait until you get a load of its content. The authors – officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – included such effusive praise of the report’s findings as: “We are issuing this report after a change in Administration, and therefore would like to clarify that OMB’s reporting of the results of these RIAs [regulatory impact analyses, the fancy term for cost-benefit analyses] does not imply an endorsement by the current Administration of all of the assumptions made and analyses conducted at the time these regulations were finalized.”
Why the cold feet over this report? It’s because its topline findings are good news for the public. And that’s bad news for the Trump administration. Specifically, it finds that for the ten-year period ending in FY 2016, the aggregate benefits of federal regulations – estimated at between $219 billion and $695 billion – outweighed their costs – estimated at between $59 billion and $88 billion – by a lot. In short, federal regulations from that period produced net economic benefits of between $160 billion and $607 billion, or a benefit-to-cost ratio of as much as 12-to-1. Moreover, they put the costs back where they belong. Instead of making all of us pay the price for industrial pollution, and unsafe products and workplaces, the rules force companies that pollute and create the other hazards to shoulder the burden.
These findings confirm that federal regulations – the things that help keep air safe to breathe and our drinking water reasonably free from toxic contaminants – continue to be a great investment of our social resources. Just by being written, implemented, and enforced, these policies are making us a lot better off. This is particularly true for low-income communities and communities of color who tend to bear a disproportionate share of the burdens that these regulations are succeeding in avoiding or preventing.
These positive results are especially significant because they are based on agencies’ prospective cost-benefit analyses of their new rules. Because its methodologies systematically overestimate regulatory costs while systematically underestimating regulatory benefits, cost-benefit analysis is an inherently flawed tool for policy evaluation that is heavily biased against strong protective safeguards. That is precisely why opponents of such safeguards in industry and on the political right embrace cost-benefit analysis so fervently. Even with the deck heavily stacked against them, though, regulations still demonstrate massive benefits in this report.
Needless to say, these findings are pretty awkward for a presidential administration that has expended a great deal of its political capital attacking regulatory safeguards. In fact, much of its domestic policy has been focused on weakening existing regulations while abdicating its responsibility to develop and implement new ones that are necessary for protecting people and the environment as Congress has called for in such public interest laws as the Clean Water Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act.
To make things worse for the Trump administration, nearly all of the period covered by this report overlaps with the eight years of the Obama administration. Put differently, this report amounts to an explicit acknowledgement that the Obama administration’s resolute pursuit of a proactive regulatory agenda was among its greatest policy successes. With the Trump administration now focusing so much time and energy on rolling back those safeguards, that acknowledgement was no doubt a bitter pill to swallow. So instead of swallowing it publicly, it spat it out in a Friday news dump.
Nevertheless, the report and its findings are out there for all of us to see. And as unreliable as these reports are, they still provide a ballpark indication of what’s at stake with the Trump administration’s assault on our safeguards.