Don't Assume Career Feds Are Resisting Trump's Deregulatory Push

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., praised agencies for their recent efforts at cutting regulations. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., praised agencies for their recent efforts at cutting regulations. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Three agency managers tasked with implementing President Trump’s push toward deregulation told Congress on Tuesday that White House executive orders have injected fresh motivation in their workforces. The mandated reviews of past rules to identify burdensome or outdated ones, they added, are driven largely by career subject-matter experts.

With regulatory reform efforts, the Defense Department “is committed to more faithfully adhering to the regulatory principles that federal agencies should promulgate only those regulations that are required or necessary and that do not unduly burden the American people," Joo Chung, director of the Oversight and Compliance Directorate in the Defense Department’s Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, told a joint hearing of two House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees.

“Going back to review regulations has resonated with the workforce,” which finds the Pentagon’s efforts to consolidate many rules under one regulation “very satisfying,” Chung said.

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Democrats on the panel expressed worries that ideologues and industry lobbyists were driving Trump’s effort to cut red tape, at the expense of health and safety. But all three agency witnesses stressed that career staff schooled in cost-benefit analysis are performing the lion’s share of the rule reviews.

The hearing was called by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to highlight what he considers good news about federal regulations. He asserted that in just five months since beginning implementation of President Trump’s January Executive Order 13771, the administration’s “kick in the pants” approach has saved $22 million.

“In September, I joined leadership from this committee and the House Judiciary Committee to request briefings from 24 agencies on the work of their task forces,” Meadows said in opening the hearing. “The results from these briefings are indeed impressive. Most agencies have begun comprehensive reviews not only for their regulations, but guidance documents, policies, information collections and other written materials that impose burdens on the public. Many agencies have already started to "clean house" by starting the process to repeal and amend regulations.”

But Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said the bid to improve efficiencies and cut unnecessary regulations “shouldn’t be done with any partisan preconceptions, but with a dispassionate and rational mindset.” He said he was “troubled by recent administrative actions to undermine the health protections and coverage that millions of Americans have come to depend on,” citing the Health and Human Services Department’s curbs on Obamacare and the Education Department’s recent alterations of guidance documents on school handling of students with disabilities. Those changes were advanced without public comment from advocacy groups.

Rep. Robin Kelly, D- Ill., said the Trump effort was being completed “under the guise of cost savings but done without consideration of impact on all Americans.” The administration has “declined to provide names of [advisory] task forces filled with industry lobbyists and acting on behalf of special interests,” she said. The committee should hear an “overall strategy” from Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and regulatory chief Neomi Rao, she added.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., citing a Transportation Department proposed rule that has been stalled since 2015 requiring reminders in automobiles about the need for rear-seat-belt use, asked, “Is the purpose to save money or promote safety?”

James Owens, acting general counsel of the Transportation Department, said, “We are committed to safety, are committed to moving forward all rules that benefit society.” Though he wasn’t familiar with the status of that Obama administration rulemaking, he said, “There is no conflict in the executive order” between safety and cost savings. “We can pursue both.”

Owens touted savings of $21.9 million in annualized costs during the first months of the Trump administration’s Transportation Department, compared with annualized costs of $3.2 billion in fiscal 2016 under Obama, he said. More savings are projected, he added, as new rules trending toward deregulation climb from 12 percent under Obama to nearly half under Trump.

Giancarlo Brizzi, principal deputy associate administrator in the General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy, said employees at GSA see regulatory reform “as an opportunity for review and reform of all day-to-day activities,” including seeking ways to make it easier for vendors to do business with the agency.  GSA’s solicitation of other agencies’ suggestions on improving regulations is a “first,” he added.

Chung said the Defense working group’s review of 716 codified regulations, including 350 in the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation, has already earmarked 88 rules for repeal, pending review from the Office of Management and Budget, and savings of $10 million.

Under questioning, all three agency representatives described their agency’s regulatory reform task forces as made up of both political appointees and career officials, all stressing transparency, innovation, and opportunities for employee and public suggestions. “Much of it is being driven by long-term career people,” summarized Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich.

“I’m impressed that the career staff have been extremely supportive, and without their expert advice, we would not have been able to move forward,” Owens said. “They have a long tradition and culture of cost-benefit analysis, seeking and following sound science.”

Such comments were welcomed by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who spoke of “helping people suffocating under regulatory burdens.”

Asked why it takes an executive order, Brizzi of GSA said while reviews were underway before Trump’s requirement, the E.O.s “bring a new level of enthusiasm.”

Meadows asked the witnesses, “Is there ever a time when safety is sacrificed?” All said there was not. “The more you streamline, the more you can focus on safety,” the chairman added. “Some on my side say the Deep State is actively stalling” regulatory reform. “But my own view is that career staff are helping, participating and making constructive recommendations.”

He said the clear message he wants to send agencies is, “Thank you.”

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