Trump vs. Red Tape : Planet Money President Trump promised to slash regulations. How has he done?
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Trump vs. Red Tape

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Trump vs. Red Tape

Trump vs. Red Tape

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KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

If you have a cause that you want to rally people around, it helps to have a nemesis, a bad guy you promise you will fight.

ALEX GOLDMARK, HOST:

Tom had Jerry, Batman - the Joker.

DUFFIN: Politicians know this. And basically every politician who's ever run for office pits himself against the same enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I will not back down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL GORE: We're going to set up a war room. We're going to focus intensively.

GOLDMARK: That is Al Gore and Barack Obama declaring war on the one thing that they, George Bush, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can all agree on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let's cut the red tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORE: Cut through the bureaucracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Cut red tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: No red tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE BUSH: Cut the red tape.

DUFFIN: Red tape.

GOLDMARK: Regulations.

DUFFIN: The enemy accused of all kinds of crimes - killing jobs.

GOLDMARK: The death of innovation, the demise of small business.

DUFFIN: And this battle - the promise to defeat red tape once and for all - it was a big part of Donald Trump's campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete. So we're going to take that all off the table, folks.

DUFFIN: And less than 12 months after Trump took office, he declared victory against red tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt.

DUFFIN: A beautiful halt.

GOLDMARK: And then he said, we are just getting started.

DUFFIN: At this press conference, Trump stood in front of two mounds of papers, which were surrounded by a literal band of red tape. He pointed at one stack of papers that's way taller than the other - over 6 feet tall - taller than him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: So this is what we have now.

DUFFIN: This stack, he said, it is all of America's current regulations.

GOLDMARK: A hundred and eighty-five thousand pages.

DUFFIN: Then he points to the other stack.

GOLDMARK: Much shorter. Maybe, like, 1 foot high.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: This is where we were in 1960.

GOLDMARK: This mini-stack is, he said, all the regulations that existed in 1960 - way fewer, a mere 20,000 pages. And then he made a promise that when he's finished cutting regulations...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: We will be less than where we were in 1960.

GOLDMARK: And then with a giant pair of scissors in his hands...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: One, two, three.

DUFFIN: That is the sweet, sweet sound of actual red tape being cut.

GOLDMARK: To get back to that 1960 stack of paper, it would mean dumping 165,000 pages of rules in the recycling bin, reducing the current amount of rules by 90 percent.

DUFFIN: But fighting regulation takes more than a big pair of scissors. I mean, adding regulations can take months, sometimes years. And actually getting rid of a rule - it can mean the same long and tedious process in reverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC GLOVER, GARY JAMES CROCKETT AND JAY GLOVER'S "LOW SLUNG")

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin.

GOLDMARK: And I'm Alex Goldmark. Today on the show, we go into the battle to find out, has Trump, at last, defeated the foe that has pummeled every president?

DUFFIN: To answer that question, we will take you to a vending machine on the frontlines of environmental regulation. We will discover the most important number no one's ever heard of.

GOLDMARK: And we'll introduce you to America's most powerful rule-taming weapon - a weapon that can only be wielded if many stars magically align.

DUFFIN: Which they did very recently.

GOLDMARK: And we behold its power.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC GLOVER, GARY JAMES CROCKETT AND JAY GLOVER'S "LOW SLUNG")

DUFFIN: We called in an expert to help us understand how we got all this regulation. And it quickly took an unexpectedly personal turn.

BRIDGET DOOLING: Do you ever find yourself in front of the fridge, just kind of seeing what's in there?

DUFFIN: Maybe.

DOOLING: Right? I mean...

DUFFIN: Maybe last night. I don't want to talk about it.

DOOLING: Sure, sure. It happens to all of us.

DUFFIN: This is Bridget Dooling. She's a professor at George Washington University.

DOOLING: But, you know, if, maybe, before you opened the fridge, you'd said, you know, am I actually hungry, you know, you might have realized that perhaps you were thirsty, or maybe you're just bored or, you know, maybe something else was on your mind.

GOLDMARK: There is a whole agency tasked with curbing regulatory binges. It's called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. Bridget worked there under Presidents Bush and Obama, and under President Trump.

DOOLING: I like to think of OIRA as the non-judgy friend who stands in front of the fridge. And when the EPA or the FDA, the USDA come looking for a snack, OIRA is there, gently asking, like, hey, what are you doing there, government? What's the problem that you're trying to solve?

DUFFIN: Do you really need to put 1,154 rules on goat farmers?

GOLDMARK: That is a real number.

DUFFIN: If you're, say, the EPA, and you want to make a regulation, you have to justify yourself to OIRA - tell them what problem you're solving and prove that the benefits outweigh the costs.

GOLDMARK: So it seems fair that if you want a new rule, you have to justify the rule.

DUFFIN: And if you want to remove a rule, you also have to justify that, which is a big part of why deregulation just takes so damn long.

GOLDMARK: We should say usually takes so damn long because there is a very powerful weapon that Congress can use to sidestep the long slog and just - three, two, one - cut the red tape.

DUFFIN: The regulatory weapon of which we speak - the Congressional Review Act, or the CRA.

GOLDMARK: We actually did a whole episode on this - number 748.

DUFFIN: The CRA was created in 1996 basically to stop lame-duck presidents from going on a last-minute regulation spree on their way out the door.

DOOLING: It's been described as, you know, Cinderella rushing home after the ball. You know, these projects - it's their last chance to get them done. We call it the midnight regulations period.

GOLDMARK: President Obama - he issued somewhere around 140 midnight regulations on his way out. Bush, by the way, did about a hundred. And so this is where the Congressional Review Act comes in.

DUFFIN: This CRA lets Congress undo any regulation issued in the previous 60 legislative days.

GOLDMARK: Just like that - poof, and it's gone.

DUFFIN: Except the president can just veto it. He can undo the undo if he wants to.

GOLDMARK: Which is why the magical power of the CRA is only really used once in a political blue moon.

DOOLING: I mean, you've got to have a party change in the White House, and you've got to have a Congress that is opposed to the prior administration's rule.

DUFFIN: And the only time that happens is, say, for instance...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States.

DUFFIN: And with that...

DOOLING: The stars were aligning for the Congressional Review Act to be used.

GOLDMARK: Before this, the CRA had only been used once - just once. It was 2001 - to strike down, of all things, a new rule about ergonomics.

DUFFIN: So if your office chairs suck, you can blame the CRA.

DOOLING: But because it had only ever been used one time, you know, we didn't necessarily know what to expect.

DUFFIN: As soon as Trump got into office, Congress took those big scissors, and they started cutting.

GOLDMARK: Down with state funding for abortion providers...

DUFFIN: Down with recording work injuries...

GOLDMARK: ...And the resource management planning rule.

DUFFIN: ...And 11 others. By the time the regulation carnage was complete, Congress used the CRA to kill 14 rules.

GOLDMARK: Just a few months into his term, courtesy of the CRA, Trump was off to a good start.

DUFFIN: Until May 15, 2017, when the clock struck 60 legislative days, and the CRA turned into a pumpkin. So from here on out, rules would have to be killed the hard way - good, old-fashioned months- and years-long deregulation.

GOLDMARK: And Trump talked a big game about this, too. On the campaign trail, he even promised a very specific plan for cutting red tape, to shrink the government in general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I will work with Congress to require that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be immediately eliminated.

DUFFIN: One in, two out - that simple.

GOLDMARK: This sounds like something you would make up on the campaign trail - just, like, nice-sounding words pulled out of a hat. But it's a real policy. Other countries do this. The U.K. has a version of it. Canada adopted it a few years ago.

DUFFIN: And just days after Trump took office, so did America.

GOLDMARK: One of the first things that Trump did as president was sign his name on Executive Order 13771. Find it right there in the federal book of rules on page 9,339 - one in, two out.

DUFFIN: Also, the money has to break even on new and old regulations, so it has teeth.

GOLDMARK: The federal government is giving this a go. They are really doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We set a target of adding zero new regulatory costs onto the American economy. Today, I'm proud to announce that we beat our goal by a lot.

GOLDMARK: Trump has bragged about this kind of thing a few times over the past two years.

DUFFIN: The government actually measures this. They now put out a yearly report card about their deregulation progress. And different people have parsed the report different ways, but everyone we asked said, yes, Trump is holding up his promise.

GOLDMARK: At least two old rules are going out for every new one going in. Regulations, by the numbers, are going away.

DUFFIN: But it might not keep going at that same pace. Trump started with the easiest things to deregulate.

GOLDMARK: We talked with Wayne Crews. He studies rules at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They're a libertarian think tank that generally argues that there are too many rules.

WAYNE CREWS: The low-hanging fruit, in terms of the two-for-one - and if you're still recording, this is fine. But the low-hanging fruit is probably being picked. And for there to be a real regulatory streamlining that goes beyond that, you're going to have to have congressional action.

GOLDMARK: Big deregulation takes Congress passing laws that sweep away dozens or hundreds or thousands of rules at a time.

DUFFIN: The real impact, so far, of Trump and his two-for-one policy, Wayne says, is on future regulations.

GOLDMARK: Agencies are thinking twice before they issue new rules now, so we get fewer new rules.

CREWS: One thing he has certainly effectively done is put a freeze on new major regulations. You're just simply not seeing a lot of new heavy-duty regulations come down the pipeline in the Trump administration. And that's quite significant.

DUFFIN: In fact, Bridget Dooling, the former regulator that we talked to earlier - she studied the pace of new regulations under Trump. And she found that in the first year and a half of the Trump administration, the amount of new regulation is down 70 percent compared to Obama - 70 percent. And compared to Bush, he's down 66 percent.

GOLDMARK: This is a big change. Trump is fundamentally changing the pace of new regulations.

DUFFIN: But Bridget points out that stopping the flow of new regulations does not do anything to undo the stock of old ones.

GOLDMARK: Tens of thousands of rules have piled up over decades. And even with a two-for-one policy taking away old regulations, that's barely making a dent.

DOOLING: I mean, every aspect of your car is probably somehow captured by a regulation. Whether it's the food you eat for breakfast, the rules around the way work gets conducted in your workplace, all of that is subject to myriad federal regulations that have grown up over time.

So something like a two-for-one that sort of chips away at one or two is never going to reach the level of deregulatory activity that the president says he wants to achieve, i.e., going back to 1960s levels.

DUFFIN: But maybe accomplishing the goal of deregulation getting the big hand of government out of the way - it can be done without actually having to repeal regulations by just looking for smaller ways to kind of tweak the rules.

GOLDMARK: Buried deep in those stacks of pages of rules, if you can find just the right line to change in just the right tiny way, you can have a pretty big impact. On that one, I am going to give up this chair to Jason Beaubien of NPR's global health desk, who picks up the story. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, HOST:

Thanks, Alex.

GOLDMARK: All right. I'm going to head out of here and let you two take it.

DUFFIN: All right.

BEAUBIEN: Hey, Karen.

DUFFIN: Hey, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: So to understand what the Trump administration is doing here, we have to first step back and look at what the Obama administration did - getting creative with regulations to push through its environmental agenda. And it all has to do with...

MICHAEL GREENSTONE: The most important number no one's ever heard of.

BEAUBIEN: This is Michael Greenstone. He's a professor at the University of Chicago. And that mysterious number that no one's ever heard of is the social cost of carbon.

GREENSTONE: The social cost of carbon are the monetized damages from the release of an additional ton of CO2.

BEAUBIEN: Basically, how much does one ton of carbon dioxide released into the air by anything - from cars or power plants - how much will that one ton of carbon dioxide cost the world?

DUFFIN: Because - apologies if we're stating the obvious here, but carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, of course, stays up there for decades.

BEAUBIEN: It traps in heat.

DUFFIN: Classic global warming.

BEAUBIEN: It could affect agricultural production in Bangladesh...

DUFFIN: Worker productivity in Texas.

BEAUBIEN: ...Or life expectancy in Egypt. CO2 emissions could have lots of impacts on lots of stuff.

DUFFIN: And Obama really wanted to do something about global warming. So he tried to get Congress to pass laws.

BEAUBIEN: But Congress said, no, we're not into that.

DUFFIN: So he turned to regulations.

BEAUBIEN: Which meant he then had to justify that the benefit of reducing emissions would be greater than the cost to, say, car companies.

DUFFIN: To do that, you'd have to be able to calculate how much damage carbon dioxide does, which brings us back to...

GREENSTONE: The social cost of carbon.

BEAUBIEN: The dollar value on the damage of one ton of CO2.

DUFFIN: Michael and his colleagues' job was to calculate that value, which is very, very complicated.

BEAUBIEN: They were plugging numbers into economic models that would just make your head spin.

GREENSTONE: Like, one of them is, what is the proper assumed distribution for the equilibrium of climate sensitivity parameter? Now, how's that for nerdy?

BEAUBIEN: Definitely nerdy.

DUFFIN: We like nerdy here. But all of this is related to real-world things.

BEAUBIEN: Like, what is the impact of this pollution on people's health and crops and economic productivity?

GREENSTONE: And so you have to project that around the world, way out into the future.

BEAUBIEN: In the end, Michael and his colleagues made a formula based on a mountain of economic research. And, voila, they had their number - $42 a ton.

GREENSTONE: That number is, like, the key piece in the ability of the U.S. government to pursue regulations that limit CO2 emissions.

DUFFIN: And they started with the important stuff - your snacks.

GREENSTONE: So the first rule, if I remember correctly, was not the most glamorous rule. It was an energy-efficiency rule for vending machines.

DUFFIN: So President Obama had found his creative way to do what he couldn't do by way of legislation.

BEAUBIEN: But those who live by the sword...

DUFFIN: I think, if I remember correctly, they die by the sword.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. And anything one president can do with the stroke of a pen, the next president can undo with a pen.

DUFFIN: Or big scissors.

BEAUBIEN: Sure enough, Trump's people came in, and they set about undoing a bunch of environmental rules one-by-one the slow, laborious way. But they also found a creative way to weaken almost all climate regulation at once.

GREENSTONE: What the Trump administration has done is found the dials - that is, the assumptions - that would most easily reduce the number. And they've grabbed those two dials, turned them - cranked them all the way down, and then end up with very low estimates of the social cost of carbon.

BEAUBIEN: They took the social cost of carbon - that $42 per ton - and they slashed it to as little as $1 per ton.

DUFFIN: There are two dials that they cranked to do this.

BEAUBIEN: First, rather than assume that U.S. CO2 emissions have a global impact, they decided to take an "America First" approach and only count the domestic impacts of that pollution.

DUFFIN: Second, they placed a very low value on the future damage that could occur from carbon.

BEAUBIEN: So now, if you want to cut down on pollution from cars and you do the analysis, on the one side, there's the cost to the car company of making a bunch of changes.

DUFFIN: And under Obama, you could say that that cost is worth it because there's $42 of damage for each ton of pollution. But now, under Trump, the damage is just a dollar - almost nothing.

GREENSTONE: The United States government is now an extraordinary outlier in its valuation of the damages of an additional ton of CO2. I'm unaware of any other government or researcher who has concluded that $1 is the right number.

BEAUBIEN: So now, if you want to propose making sweeping emissions changes to new cars, it's really hard to justify anymore.

DUFFIN: And, of course, the atmosphere doesn't care what number any president plugs into a formula. OK, we've gone through a lot of ways that Trump is changing regulations. Worth a little recap?

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely.

DUFFIN: All right. The Trump administration has definitely stemmed the tide of new regulation. But getting rid of that 6-foot stack - all those rules that were made in the past - that still stands tall. They are not on pace to get to Trump's goal of 1960s levels - not even close.

BEAUBIEN: But they are chipping away at rules through the normal, tedious channels and looking for other ways, like tweaking that carbon number.

DUFFIN: And look; this stuff is so complicated. We only got to a small fraction of what we wanted to cover. So obviously, we decided that we would just have to cram everything that we couldn't get to in a song.

BEAUBIEN: We present to you, right after the credits, the world premiere of a PLANET MONEY original song. Stand by for "The End Of Regs As We Know It" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "THE PERIOD PUNKS (REMIX)")

BEAUBIEN: Today's show was produced by Darian Woods and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

DUFFIN: Special thanks to Senator Pat Toomey's office, Susan Dudley for helping us understand complicated reports, Laura Jones (ph), Bill Wallack (ph), Sam Ori and Michael J. Rush (ph).

BEAUBIEN: I think it's time for our song.

DUFFIN: Which is performed for your nerdy listening pleasure by Juice Cleanse. You can hear more of their music at juicecleanse.bandcamp.com. Parody lyrics by Karen Lurie and Shane McKeon. We'll post the song and lyrics on our website, also on our social media. We are @planetmoney on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

BEAUBIEN: There's even a video on Instagram.

DUFFIN: I'm Karen Duffin.

BEAUBIEN: I'm Jason Beaubien. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S THE END OF THESE REGS AS WE KNOW 'EM")

JUICE CLEANSE: (Singing) That's cool. Affordable Clean Energy Rule, Methane and Waste Prevention Rule and the arbitration rule. Oy, net neutrality. Then again, its repeal. Waters of the U.S., its rescission - new rule. Clean Power Plan, scientific transparency, plus the standards for Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

Bureaucratic and dramatic, red tape reshape, and there's no escape. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. They're on borrowed time.

The borrower defense rule for those of you who went school, the DOE has called it off - Betsy DeVos. Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule - no more dealer markups guidance. Its rescission went and smite it.

Bureaucratic and dramatic, red tape reshape, and there's no escape. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. They're on borrowed time. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. It's the end of these regs as we know 'em. They're on borrowed time.

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