May 25, 2017
By Matt Townsend
(Bloomberg) — Few Americans care about beryllium. Most have probably never heard of it.
But, it turns out, the metal — symbol Be on the periodic table — offers a case study on governing by President Donald Trump. With little fanfare earlier this year, the Department of Labor delayed and the White House began a review of limits on workplace exposure to the possibly toxic element used in cell phones and aircraft, handing industry a victory.
Across Washington, myriad rules are similarly being softened, mostly to the delight of corporate America. With executive orders, bureaucratic actions and unprecedented use of an obscure statute, the Trump administration has killed or postponed dozens of regulations. The controversies swamping the White House haven’t gotten in the way of an often under-the-radar, piece-by-piece realization of Trump’s pro-business campaign promises.
Some moves, such as relaxing Obama-era clean-water decrees, have made headlines. Many others, the beryllium deferment among them, have received scant attention outside a tight circle of agencies, businesses and often outraged public-interest groups.
They may seem minor, but they all add up. “He wants to free up as much of the economy from government regulations as possible and he’s found ways to do that outside the legislative process,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor and presidential historian at Princeton University.
Chief executives may not see a clear path to the corporate tax cut they want, but they’re winning in a significant smattering of other ways. E-cigarette makers got a reprieve when Trump’s Food and Drug Administration pushed outthe deadline for complying with tobacco laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration gave builders three extra months to slash laborers’ exposure to silica dust, which has been linked to cancer.
Companies bidding for big federal contracts don’t have to disclose serious safety and labor-law violations anymore. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt thwarted a push made under President Barack Obama to ban Dow Chemical Co.’s widely used pesticide Lorsban from food farming. The Department of Agriculture has twice delayed new standards for livestock labeled organic, which would require animals to have year-around access to the outdoors and enough indoor space to stretch their limbs.
“They are just getting started,” said Todd Becker, chief executive officer of ethanol-maker Green Plains Inc. Congress may be going slowly with the sweeping measures on the Trump agenda, but “at the agency level, that stuff is going to keep moving. You don’t need legislation.”
All the moves on the regulatory front helps explain why, even with the swirl of distractions at the White House, investors are bullish. Sam Zell, the billionaire real-estate baron, said many of the actions, such as rolling back waterway rules, will have zero impact on his companies but sent a crucial message. Trump “has brought back the importance of business. It’s why the stock market is up and why I’m optimistic.”
There’s more to come in what Trump strategist Steve Bannon has called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The president on Jan. 30 issued an order directing agencies to create task forces to find unnecessary regulations to eliminate — at least two for every one proposed or handed down. That effort is underway, with input from industry, local government and consumers. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission calls its program KISS, for Keep It Simple Stupid.
A bill that passed the House in January would change the game entirely, adding layers of new hurdles for agencies that write the rules that implement laws. The Regulatory Accountability Act would, for one thing, emphasize the costs to businesses of complying with rules, something the Trump team contends their predecessors failed to do to the point of irresponsibility. The measure is now in the Senate, where it probably wouldn’t survive a filibuster, should Democrats decide to go that route.
The president and the Republican-controlled Congress have shown that rollbacks aren’t so difficult. They used the Congressional Review Act to throw out or suspend 14 pieces of Obama’s legacy — stopping regulations for workplace safety record-keeping, for example, and killing an anti-corruption directive that forced oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.
Before Trump, only one president had signed a review-act measure since the statute became law in 1996: George W. Bush tapped it to overturn a rule under predecessor Bill Clinton mandating the creation of workplace ergonomic programs. The act, which sets expedited procedures to review a regulation, has to be used before a certain deadline in a new presidency, which for Trump passed this month.
There’s been pushback from a chorus of critics to the deregulation machine. They see the government’s role as protector of consumers, workers and the environment being crushed. A federal lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Trump’s eliminate-regulations order on grounds that it is, among other things, arbitrary and capricious.
But the executive branch has broad power when it comes to writing the rules of everyday government policy, and the Trump team is leveraging it.
“The administration is using every tool at its disposal to accomplish its goals,” especially with the thin Republican majority in the Senate, said Sam Geduldig, a partner at lobbying firm CGCN Group in Washington, whose clients include Boeing Co., Walt Disney Co. and Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg News. “It’s the spaghetti against the wall approach: Try it all.”