It was supposed to be a quiet week in Washington, with Congress on recess and President Donald Trump staying at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. But Trump shattered any respite with his unexpected threats towards North Korea and wide-ranging news conference Thursday, including a string of attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Even if Trump hadn’t loudly waved those sticks, things wouldn’t have exactly been quiet within the administration itself. With far less attention, Trump’s agencies continue to crank out new policies, rolling back Obama’s regulatory legacy and imposing a new era of conservative reforms on everything from protections for a funky-looking bird to a controversial rule for stockbrokers. Here’s how Trump is changing policy in America this week:
1. Interior relaxes Obama-era Sage Grouse rules
In September 2015, the Obama administration announced new protections for the sage grouse, a bird whose habitat happens to cover some of the most resource-rich lands in the American West. The administration declined to list the bird on the endangered species list—a big victory for oil and gas companies—but the new conservation plan included strong measures to protect sage grouse habitat.
This week, the Interior Department, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, began rolling back the conservation plan, directing the Bureau of Land Management to shrink the buffer zones between sage grouse breeding grounds, among other changes. Environmentalists slammed the move, saying it jeopardized the carefully crafted Obama-era compromise between oil and gas interests and environmental groups. The changes won’t take effect overnight: It can take years for the agency and states to implement new land-use policies that determine where companies can drill for gas and oil, but it was another big sign of the Interior Department’s new priorities under Zinke.
2. EPA eases the approval process for new chemicals
Last year, in the largest revamp of America’s chemical safety laws in 40 years, Congress required that the Environmental Protection Agency examine “reasonably foreseen uses” of chemicals when they evaluate them for safety. The changes were designed to ensure that the EPA examines chemicals for their likely real-world impact, instead of narrowly evaluating them on the specific uses for which they were intended.
On Monday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced new “operating principles” for how the agency will apply the law. In a surprise, the EPA will first assess chemicals based only on their intended use—similar to how the agency operated before passage of the new law. If the EPA has any concerns about other potential uses, “as a general matter,” those will be adjudicated through a separate rule-making. In other words, new chemicals may still be approved while the EPA is reviewing their potential further impact—the exact outcome lawmakers were trying to avoid. The change is a big victory for industry groups, which wanted a lighter touch approach to regulation. Pruitt also announced Monday that the agency had cleared a backlog of 600 new chemicals awaiting approval—another move that drew praise from the chemical industry and strong rebukes from consumer groups.
3. DOJ switches sides in Ohio voting case
Under Obama, the Department of Justice frequently challenged voter ID laws and similar state-level laws in court, arguing they unfairly affected minority voters while “solving” a voter-fraud problem that was essentially nonexistent. Under Trump, the DOJ is taking the opposite position; this week the Justice Department reversed its position on a controversial Ohio voting law, under which the state has purged tens of thousands of people from the voter rolls if they haven’t cast a ballot in the past two years and don’t respond to a piece of mail asking them to confirm their registration.
The Obama-era DOJ had argued that the Ohio law discriminated against minorities and thus violated federal voting laws, but in a filing on Monday, the department said it had reconsidered its position and determined that the Ohio voting roll purge was legal.
Since the election, Trump has repeatedly claimed—without evidence—that millions of people cast illegal ballots, allowing Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote. In response, he created a commission to investigate voter fraud, led by controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which has done little so far. In addition, the Justice Department in February, dropped its opposition to a Texas voter ID law, a major shift that signaled the priorities of the new administration.
4. The fiduciary standard gets punted
Perhaps the biggest financial reform of the late Obama era was the “fiduciary rule,” the 2015 Obama regulation that requires investment advisers to act in the best interest of their clients when selling products like retirement investments. (The concern was that many advisers were pushing investments with a higher commission for the adviser, rather than a better return for the client.) It was assumed to be doomed under the new administration, but Democrats enjoyed a brief moment of celebration in May when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he would allow the rule to take effect in early June.
It now appears the celebration was premature. Only part of the rule took effect in June, and the Labor Department isn’t enforcing that part until the entire rule takes effect on January 1, 2018. But now even that won’t be happening: This week, in a court filing, the Labor Department revealed that it had sent a rule to the White House for review that would delay full implementation of the fiduciary rule for 18 months, until July 1, 2019—enough time for the Trump administration to make significant changes or repeal it altogether.
5. The nuclear waste storage fight warms up
Where should America stash its spent nuclear fuel? A decades-old plan to create a central dumping site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain stalled out during the Obama administration, with Nevada powerhouse Harry Reid leading Democrats in the Senate. But the Trump administration has re-opened that dormant fight over the past few months, and it’s starting to really heat up. First, Trump requested $120 million in his 2018 budget to restart the licensing process for the Yucca site. Then, in June, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that he was reconstituting the key office that oversaw the Nevada site for long-term waste storage, setting off protests from Nevada lawmakers and forcing Perry to walk back some of this comments.
This week, the National Regulatory Commission released a memo—dated July 31—directing staff to conduct preliminary “information-gathering” on restarting the licensing process. This is a small step, a $110,000 effort to “re-establish infrastructure” to get the licensing process underway. But it’s another sign that Trump is serious about storing nuclear waste in the Yucca site. This fight is just getting underway.
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