Despite the chaos and the growing credibility gap, Donald Trump is systematically succeeding in his quest to "deconstruct the administrative state," as his chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon puts it.
Trump's pursued the most aggressive regulatory rollback since Ronald Reagan, especially on environmental issues, with a series of bills and executive orders. He's placed devoted ideologues into perches from which they can stop aggressively enforcing laws that conservatives don't like. By not filling certain posts, he's ensuring that certain government functions will simply not be performed. His budget proposal spotlighted his desire to make as much of the federal bureaucracy as possible wither on the vine.
Trump has been using executive orders to tie the hands of rule makers. He put in place a regulatory freeze during his first hours, mandated that two regulations be repealed for every new one that goes on the books and ordered a top-to-bottom review of the government with an eye toward shrinking it.
Any day now, Trump is expected to sign an executive order aimed at undoing Obama's Clean Power Plan and end a moratorium on federal-land coal mining. This would ensure that the U.S. does not meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
The administration is also preparing new executive orders to re-examine all 14 U.S. free trade agreements, including NAFTA, and the president could start to sign some of them this week.
Trump unveiled a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracyand, potentially, privatize some government functions. "The Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump," Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. "Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to . . . create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements. . . . Kushner's team is being formalized just as the Trump administration is proposing sweeping budget cuts across many departments, and members said they would help find efficiencies."
Kushner's ambitions are grand: "At least to start, the team plans to focus its attention on re-imagining Veterans Affairs; modernizing the technology and data infrastructure of every federal department and agency; remodeling workforce-training programs; and developing 'transformative projects' under the banner of Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan, such as providing broadband Internet service to every American. In some cases, the office could direct that government functions be privatized, or that existing contracts be awarded to new bidders."
The Congressional Review Act had only been used once since it passed in 1996 to get rid of a regulation.
Trump has already used it three times since February to kill regulations put into effect by the Obama administration: He eliminated the Interior Department's stream protection rule, which barred coal-mining companies from conducting any activities that could permanently pollute streams and other sources of drinking water. He killed an SEC rule requiring oil and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. And he made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns by blocking the Social Security Administration from turning over certain data to the FBI.
Seven more bills to undo Obama regulations have passed both chambers of Congress and will soon be signed by the president. Among them: Rolling back worker safety regulations to track and reduce workplace injuries and deaths, reducing disclosure requirements for federal contractors and abolishing a rule that restricted certain kinds of hunting, such as trapping and aerial shooting, inside national wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Several more are in the pipeline. The Republican Senate last Thursday voted to repeal rules aimed at protecting consumers' online data from Internet providers. Once the House passes the measure, and the president signs it, it will be vastly easier for broadband companies to sell and share your personal usage information for advertising purposes.
He can't pass legislation to repeal Obamacare, but Trump is weakening the pillars of the health care system from the inside so that he can blame Democrats for future problems. Although Paul Ryan acknowledged Friday that "Obamacare is the law of the land," its survival or collapse in practical terms now rests with decisions that are in the president's hands.
On his first night in office, the president directed federal agencies to ease the regulatory burden that the ACA has placed on consumers, the health-care industry and health-care providers. "So far, the main action stemming from that directive is a move by the Internal Revenue Service to process Americans' tax refunds even if they fail to submit proof that they are insured, as the ACA requires," the Post reported.
There are other steps the administration could take: "A major one would be to end cost-sharing subsidies the law provides to lower- and middle-income people with marketplace plans to help pay their deductibles and co-pays," the Post report noted "Another question is how the administration will handle the next enrollment season for ACA health plans, which will begin in November. The end of the most recent season coincided with Trump's first days in office, and the new administration yanked some advertising meant to encourage sign-ups. . . . While a set of federal essential health benefits, required of health plans sold to individuals and small businesses, will now remain in law, federal health officials could narrow what they require, limiting prescription drugs, for instance, or the number of visits allowed for mental-health treatment or physical therapy. . . . The administration also could take advantage of a part of the ACA that, starting this year, lets health officials give states broad latitude to carry out the law's goals."
Personnel is policy, and Trump has appointed several people who openly oppose the missions of the agencies they lead. "If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction," Bannon explained at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Scott Pruitt, for example, spent six years suing the Environmental Protection Agency as Oklahoma's attorney general. Now he's running it. He's already done a great deal to narrow the scope of the agency's mission and halted inquiries launched by his predecessor. Soon after getting confirmed, for instance, he told operators of oil and gas wells that they could ignore the agency's previous requests for information about their equipment's emissions of methane.
Now the White House is taking active steps to starve the bureaucracy of its lifeblood: money and staff. He called for slashing the EPA's budget by 31 percent, the biggest cut of any federal agency, in addition to eliminating a fifth of its workforce. Efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes are among the more than 50 programs that would be eliminated. (Denise Luo and Tim Meko prepared several visualizations of the impacts such cuts would have on the environment.)
Sometimes who you don't hire is just as important as who you do. Trump recently told Fox News that he will not fill all the vacancies he's entitled to. He explained that not moving to populate the cabinet departments is a feature, not a bug, of his administration. "When I see a story about 'Donald Trump didn't fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs,' it's because, in many cases, we don't want to fill those jobs," the president acknowledged. "Many of those jobs I don't want to fill." Those unstaffed jobs will be chokepoints to block action by the administrative state.
Trump's biggest donors, who have been briefed on his theory of the case, are giving him a very long leash because they are playing the long game. "The atmosphere was buoyant at a conference held by the conservative Heartland Institute last week at a downtown Washington hotel, where speakers denounced climate science as rigged and jubilantly touted deep cuts Trump is seeking to make to the Environmental Protection Agency," the Post reported. "Front and center during the two-day gathering were New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, Republican mega-donors who with their former political adviser (Bannon) helped finance an alternative media ecosystem that amplified Trump's populist themes during last year's campaign."
The Heartland Institute embraces views that have long been considered outlier positions by the scientific community. In 2012, the group paid for a Chicago billboard that read, "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?" alongside a picture of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. The Mercers have given this group more than $5 million in recent years.
Half a dozen Trump transition officials and administration advisers attended the gathering, including Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who headed Trump's EPA transition team. Ebell, who disputes the scientific consensus that humans are driving the warming of the planet, received Heartland's "Speaks Truth to Power Award."
"Many of the people who are now prominent in the Trump administration attended our conferences, even spoke at our conferences, read our publications," Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast told The Post. "I think we're seeing the fruit of a decade of hard work on this issue."
Most importantly of all, Neil Gorsuch is poised to secure a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Bannon said the president has chosen his appointees with the deconstruction of the administrative state in mind. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the high court.
It is notable that Bannon made his declaration of "deconstruction" during a Q&A with Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union. Gorsuch, a political operator whose mom ran the EPA under Ronald Reagan, wrote an email to Schlapp right after the 2004 election. He had just volunteered to help George W. Bush in Ohio. "What a magnificent result for the country," Gorsuch told Schlapp, who was Bush's political director. "For me personally, the experience was invigorating and a great deal of fun. . . . While I've spent considerable time trying to help the cause on a volunteer basis in various roles, I concluded that I'd really like to be a full-time member of the team." Gorsuch sent Schlapp a list of jobs he'd be "competent to handle." He wound up getting a plum appointment in the Justice Department, and then Bush appointed him to the 10th Circuit.
From the bench, Gorsuch has dependably advanced "the cause." The most distinctive part of his jurisprudence, which helped ensure his spot on every conservative group's shortlist, is his opposition to what's called "Chevron deference." In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that judges should generally defer to administrative agencies' interpretations of federal law in cases where the law may be "ambiguous" and the agency's position seems "reasonable." Even Antonin Scalia bought into this standard. But Gorsuch denounces it as "a judge-made doctrine for the abdication of the judicial duty."
This is one of the reasons Republicans are willing to use the nuclear option, changing the rules of the Senate, to get him confirmed with fewer than 60 votes. They are confident he will facilitate a major rollback of the regulatory state over the next 30 to 40 years, which would be a major part of Trump's legacy as president.