At first glance, the past week in Washington looks like a lot of noise about nothing. Three versions of the Republican Obamacare repeal effort failed in the Senate, the last in a dramatic early morning vote Friday, leaving the national health care law intact after months of GOP efforts to kill it. President Donald Trump surprised Pentagon officials by tweeting that he was banning transgender troops from the military, but neither the White House nor the Department of Defense appears to have a policy in place, so the status quo holds for now. And despite Trump’s social-media war on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions remains in his job.
Still, behind the blizzard of White House infighting and drama on Capitol Hill, the Trump administration has steadily been pushing policies behind the scenes, rolling back Obama’s legacy in favor of a new national regulatory regime friendlier to businesses and tougher on undocumented immigrants. Here’s the eighth installment of The Agenda’s weekly series on how Trump is quietly changing policy in America.
1. Trump targets Obama’s fuel economy standards
On January 13, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency attempted to lock in its 2022-2025 fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, issuing a finding that wasn’t due for another 15 months. The goal was clear: block Trump from weakening the standards. But this week, the Trump administration made clear that those standards aren’t going to last.
On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began the process to write fuel efficiency regulations for years 2022-2025, seeking comment on an upcoming environmental review. Within the notice, the agency also offered clear signs that it is likely to weaken Obama’s fuel economy standards: It is considering freezing the fuel efficiency targets, instead of raising them each year as the Obama administration had proposed. It may also go back a year and review the 2021 fuel efficiency standards, which NHTSA issued in 2012.
How can NHTSA issue new fuel efficiency standards if the EPA already issued them in January? Because the standards are, in fact, a dual effort between the EPA and NHTSA; the EPA issues a rule on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks while NHTSA issues a rule on fuel efficiency. So while the EPA attempted to lock in the 2022-2025 standards through its January rule, NHTSA must still go through a full rule-making process on its own to set the fuel economy standards, giving Trump an opening to weaken those rules. And it appears he’s going to do just that.
2. DOJ takes another swing at sanctuary cities
For Sessions, the week was dominated by Trump’s repeated attacks on his job performance and questions about whether the president was setting the gears in motion to fire him. But at the Department of Justice, he was busy implementing Trump’s immigration agenda, imposing new restrictions on so-called sanctuary cities—states and localities that refuse to help the feds enforce immigration laws.
The new policy, released Tuesday, imposes new restrictions on cities that receive certain grants from the DOJ. Cities that seek money under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program—known as “Byrne JAG”—must comply with two new conditions: They must give officials at the Department of Homeland Security at least 48 hours notice before releasing an undocumented immigrant from custody, and allow DHS authorities to visit state and local jails.
The new policy is Trump’s first real attempt to crack down on sanctuary cities, a top campaign promise. With $347 million in funding this year, the Byrne JAG program is the largest federal grant for state and local law enforcement; cutting funding to sanctuary cities could leave a real budgetary hole for police departments. Will that actually happen? Political leaders of many sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco and Chicago, have already said they won’t change their immigration policies based on the new threat; they are also certain to sue the DOJ, arguing that the coercive use of grants is an unconstitutional use of government power. Like nearly all of Trump’s immigration agenda, the fate of his sanctuary city effort will likely be decided by the courts.
3. Obama’s overtime rule is in trouble
In May 2016, Vice President Joe Biden announced a huge expansion of the Department of Labor’s overtime rule, which requires employers to pay employees time-and-a-half their regular wages for more than 40 hours of work. The revised rule expanded the definition for who qualified for overtime pay and raised the salary threshold under which most workers are required to receive overtime, from $23,660 to $47,476. The effort represented a top second-term priority for Obama—a unilateral attempt to give American workers a raise.
But businesses hated the rule and sued the administration over it; when Obama left office, the rule hadn’t taken effect and remained in legal limbo. This week, the Trump administration sent a strong message that it will never take effect: The Labor Department kicked off the process to rewrite the rule, publishing a “request for information” that seeks comments from the public about further changes. The notice wasn’t exactly a surprise, since last month, the Trump administration declined to support the rule in a legal brief it filed in the ongoing lawsuit. But Tuesday’s news still represents the clearest sign that the Trump DOL doesn’t support Obama’s overtime rule and intends to roll it back.
4. Repealing Obama’s fracking rule
In March 2015, the Interior Department released a high-profile rule governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands. The process, known as “fracking,” involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the earth to release oil and gas; it has helped make the U.S. one of the world’s leading oil and gas producers, but environmentalists have criticized it for worsening climate change, polluting groundwater and causing earthquakes. The rule was intended to impose stronger safety measures on fracking on public lands, requiring producers to safely store waste fluids and disclose what chemicals they use.
But the rule never actually took effect, due to lawsuits from the oil and gas industry. Now, it’s on the verge of death. The Interior Department on Monday released a 33-page proposed rule to repeal the fracking regulation, saying the Obama-era rule was “unnecessarily duplicative of state and some tribal regulations and imposes burdensome reporting requirements and other unjustified costs on the oil and gas industry.” The agency is accepting comments for 60 days and will release a final rule soon thereafter. But it’s clear how this will end: The fracking rule is dead.
5. Ending an Obama retirement program
In 2014, the Treasury Department created a new way for Americans to save for retirement, allowing people without access to a workplace retirement plan to open a starter account, known as a “myRA.” It was designed to encourage all Americans to save for retirement—without fees—and participants could contribute up to $5,500 a year from pre-tax earnings, a savings account or a federal tax refund.
The Obama administration heavily promoted the program, but myRA never garnered much interest: Only about 20,000 people have opened accounts since it launched at the end of 2015. On Friday, the Treasury Department announced it was shutting down the myRA program; participants’ funds would be transitioned into Roth IRA accounts. The death of myRA isn’t a huge deal, given the limited enrollment. But Friday’s news still marks the end of a top Obama effort to expand retirement savings opportunities.Source: world