COVID-19, News, Trump Administration

Trump ousts another watchdog as critics see ‘disturbing pattern’

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday ousted the second federal watchdog in the span of five days as congressional Democrats accused him of purging federal employees for political reasons.

Trump removed the Defense Department’s Acting Inspector General, Glenn Fine, who had been on the job since early 2016. Last week, Fine had been named by a group of other inspectors general to lead a committee tasked with overseeing how the government spends $2 trillion in COVID-19 relief aid. Trump also named Sean O’Donnell, the inspector general of the U.S. EPA, to serve as the acting DOD inspector general.

Fine’s ouster came after Trump on Friday fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment, CNN reported.

Lawmakers and other critics warn that the administration is meddling with independent oversight.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that Fine’s “sudden removal and replacement” is “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the President against independent overseers fulfilling their statutory and patriotic duties to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that “Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”

Now, O’Donnell — who has been on the job at EPA for just over two months — will dramatically expand his portfolio.

On top of overseeing EPA, which has an annual budget of about $8.8 billion and a workforce of about 14,000 people, O’Donnell will be tasked with overseeing the nation’s largest employer. The Defense Department has an annual budget of about $716 billion and employs about 2.87 million people.

Prior to serving as EPA’s inspector general, O’Donnell worked for 15 years at the Justice Department, most recently as a prosecutor in the criminal division’s money laundering and asset recovery section. He was detailed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, where he worked on the group that vetted and prepared candidates — including now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — for federal judicial nominations.

O’Donnell will serve as the Defense Department’s acting inspector general starting this week, said Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA IG’s office. She confirmed that he will be serving as EPA’s top watchdog as well.

Trump on Friday announced plans to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy advisor at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department’s permanent inspector general. That post requires Senate confirmation.

As acting DOD IG, O’Donnell will not automatically assume Fine’s duties as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Under the $2 trillion COVID-19 response package, the Defense Department IG is a member of that committee, which is tasked with preventing waste, fraud and abuse, Elbaum said.

A council of federal inspectors general, which had previously selected Fine, will be charged with naming a new leader of the oversight committee.

‘The world is upside down’ 

Earl Devaney, a former Interior Department inspector general who was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of federal stimulus spending by the Obama administration, has worked with Fine and called him “one of the best” among inspectors general.  Read more

Commentary, COVID-19, Trump Administration

The Trump administration: Actively pursuing new and destructive health policy changes during the pandemic

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

It doesn’t really come as any surprise that what many have persuasively labeled the worst presidential administration in U.S. history would be doubling down on its reactionary agenda at the same moment that its utter ineptitude in handling the public health pandemic is costing scores of people their lives every day. Still, there’s something especially noxious and maddening about the idea of pursuing changes that will assure the unnecessary death of vast swaths of  human, animal and plant life around the world at the very moment a terrible global pandemic is raging.

But hey, that’s how the Trumpists roll. When in doubt, put near-term greed and the interests of wealthy corporate bosses ahead of everything else. A Sunday editorial in the Greensboro News & Record explains:

While we’re hunkered down, distracted by the current crisis, the Trump administration is continuing a concerted assault on environmental protections.

At the end of March, the Trump administration rolled back impending vehicle mileage standards, a move that will lead to an increase in the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change — and will also lead to more respiratory illness, like asthma, especially among young people. Drawing on the government’s own projections, the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group projects 18,500 additional deaths from respiratory problems and other illnesses by mid-century, along with more illnesses and lost work days, should the Trump standards be implemented.

But wait, it gets worse, notes the editorial:

On March 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — a name that under administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, is Orwellian — released a proposal that would limit public and scientific input to changes in agency rules. No public hearing on the proposal has been scheduled — nor is it likely to be scheduled at this time.

The EPA, along with the U.S. Interior Department, will likely try to push other wish-list items through while opponents are distracted, like the sale of public lands to oil companies and increased attempts to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As we’ve been reminded in recent days — days here in North Carolina that have been marked by almost painfully stunning spring beauty — one of the tiny slivers of silver lining in the current horrific disaster has been the sharp drop-off in deadly poisons that humans have been pumping into the atmosphere as a result of our sudden reduction in fossil fuel usage. Yesterday in Raleigh, it almost felt as if nature was celebrating the decline in human-made pollution.

None of this is to imply, of course, that the current situation is desirable. We obviously need to get out of quarantine and back to normal life. It is, however, worth remembering that COVID-19 is far from the only public health plague that confronts our planet right now. Thousands — probably millions — will also die premature deaths in the decades ahead thanks to air pollution and the climate crisis it is abetting. And right now, at a moment in time in which our fragility as a species has seldom been more plainly demonstrated, President Donald Trump and his evil minions are taking advantage of this desperate situation to compound the mess and further endanger the well-being of the planet.

Shame on them.

COVID-19, News, Trump Administration

Trump reluctantly invoked an obscure wartime power. Here’s what it means.

COVID-19, Trump Administration

NC’s Josh Stein among nation’s AGs to tell Trump: Put the brakes on new regulations

NC Attorney General Josh Stein

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and 20 other attorneys general from across the country are pressing the Trump administration to freeze pending regulations so officials can focus on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The attorneys general sent a letter Tuesday to the White House Office of Management and Budget requesting that the administration cease other regulations and focus only on those related to the pandemic.

“The need to prioritize regulations responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic should be self-evident,” the letter states.

The move for a regulatory freeze comes as President Donald Trump pushes to overhaul some significant federal regulations. For instance, the Trump administration finalized new rules Tuesday that will markedly weaken fuel-efficiency standards over the next six years, a rollback of a major Obama-era climate policy.

The new auto emissions standards are just one of the regulatory rollbacks in the works that analysts expected to see this spring.

Other pending regulatory proposals include a rule that would relax standards on mercury emissions, a plan that would limit the scientific studies used to underpin U.S. EPA rules, restrictions on food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a controversial change to how sexual assault charges are handled at schools.

In the past three weeks, the EPA has finalized at least three other regulatory rollbacks, according to tracking from the Brookings Institution. EPA streamlined pre-construction air quality approvals in tribal areas. The agency also revised Clean Air Act requirements for refrigerants. And the EPA instituted a temporary policy suspending enforcement of some environmental rules in response to COVID-19.

‘Daily life … has been upended’

Proposals for new federal regulations undergo a formalized public input process with certain deadlines.

But the attorneys general said responding to these proposals and implementing final rules is increasingly difficult as society focuses on the pandemic.

“While the federal government is mobilizing, state and local governments across the country have been wholly dedicated to responding to the emergency and combating the spread of this deadly virus, and daily life in our communities has been upended by the need to maintain social distancing,” the letter states.

For regulations that are unrelated to the virus, the AGs asked the government to extend comment periods and reopen those that had already closed.

They join a growing chorus of officials and advocates asking the government to pause some regulations.  The Independent Community Banking Association sent a letter to federal agencies Monday asking them to delay all non-COVID-19 related financial rules by at least 180 days.

The group, which represents small community banks across the country, said the virus and its mitigation efforts are taking a toll on its members. They specifically asked federal regulators to freeze six different financial rules, half of which have public comment deadlines in the next two weeks.

Earlier in March, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said comment periods closing after March 1 should be suspended or extended.

And a  group of 170 public interest, labor and environmental organizations also asked the White House to slow down the regulatory process. The groups — including Public Citizen, Center for American Progress, Center for Progressive Reform, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Amnesty International USA — sent a letter to the White House OMB in March asking to hold the public comment period open for non-emergency rules.

‘One area they are not shutting down’

The federal government has altered some operations in response to the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 virus.

Federal workers have been instructed to work from home, if possible. Agencies have lengthened some deadlines. EPA has waived some of its environmental reviews. But much of the agency’s work on new regulations goes on.

“I think it is becoming more and more conspicuous that this administration is basically shutting a lot of agency actions and work down, but the one area they are not shutting down at all is where there is a deregulatory impact,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen.

The new auto emissions standards that the Trump administration finalized this week roll back what had been a major climate policy for the Obama administration. The Obama rules sought to make noticeable cuts to emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gases in the United States.

The Trump rule will increase stringency of carbon dioxide emissions standards for automakers by 1.5 percent per year through vehicle model year 2026. That’s weaker than Obama’s standards, which required a 5 percent annual increase over that time. The Trump team said those rules would be too expensive for automakers and consumers.

“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to correct the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in announcing the rules.

Wheeler said the new rules would “strike the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry.”

Consumer watchdog organizations and environmental groups say the standards will lead to more polluted air and cost consumers more in the long run at the gas pump.

‘Attacking the public safeguards’ 

“It is wildly inappropriate to do this stuff now; there is a sense of attacking the public safeguards while people are distracted,” said James Goodwin, who tracks regulations for the Center for Progressive Reform.

Goodwin said the EPA rules are particularly problematic because of the missed opportunity to reduce air pollution, which would be a societal benefit as the nation grapples with widespread respiratory illness.

“One of the most important things we can be doing right now is reducing our air pollution. It is up there with building ventilators,” Goodwin said. “But what you see the administration doing right now is quite the opposite. These rollbacks make pollution worse.”

To put these rulemakings out “is functionally equivalent to rounding up spare ventilators and dumping them in the ocean,” he added.

Trump took office with a promise to undo much of what President Barack Obama had put in place. The administration is pushing to get many of these regulations in place by mid-May, to make it harder to reverse the rules if Democrats gain more control after the 2020 election.

A 1996 law called the Congressional Review Act allows Congress to overturn recently completed regulations from the executive branch. Under the act, lawmakers can review rules that have taken effect in the last 60 working days of the congressional calendar.

With a majority vote, they can pass a “joint resolution of disapproval” to nullify a rule and prohibit the federal government from issuing a “substantially similar” one in the future.

Republicans broadly used the Congressional Review Act in 2017, wiping out 16 Obama-era rules on issues from labor and finance to surface-mining, according to an analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform. Before then, Congress had only used it to eliminate one rule: a regulation on ergonomics from President Bill Clinton that was thrown out after President George W. Bush took office.

COVID-19, Environment, Trump Administration

Poll: North Carolinians say feds must address climate change, unhappy with Tillis

Sen. Thom Tillis has just a 31% job approval rating, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey.

More than 60 percent of North Carolinians surveyed said they think elected leaders — particularly the federal government — must act urgently to protect communities from the worst impacts of climate change, according to poll results released today.

And two-thirds said they strongly or somewhat approve of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan. Surprisingly, 40 percent of Trump voters said they support the plan, evidence of “a bit more partisan crossover than in the past,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling.

PPP conducted the survey last weekend on behalf of the NC League of Conservation Voters. It surveyed 781 North Carolinians. Half of the surveys were conducted by phone and the rest by text message. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5%.

A third of respondents identified as Republicans, with 40% as Democrats and 27% independents. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they were white.

On nearly every climate-related question, respondents said they supported a transition to clean energy, as well as recognized the public health risks associated with climate change.

More than 60 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a US Senate candidate who takes climate change seriously.

Sen. Thom Tillis’s record on climate change is inconsistent. In 2014, he said climate change was not “a fact,” and subsequently denied that humans’ reliance on greenhouse gas emissions was the main driver. Since then, he has acknowledged the science, but nonetheless urged President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Tillis’s job approval rating is just 31% among those polled, even lower than President Trump’s — 46%.

Gov. Cooper’s approval rating is 51%.

Dustin Ingalls, director of strategic communications for NCLCV compared the effects of the climate crisis on low-income residents and communities of color to those of the new coronavirus. “It’s impacting those communities first and worst,” Ingalls said. “They are exposed to more air pollution, which exacerbates health issues like asthma, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.”

The inadequate federal response to the pandemic bears hallmarks of its similar denials of climate change, Ingalls said.

“Like the climate crisis, the corona crisis has been made worse by a federal government which has defunded or eliminated response teams, rolled back regulations, ignored science and expert advice, treated it like a hoax, and jumped to action too late.”

Jensen said the coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of government’s role in protecting public health, including that related to climate change. Excessive heat, floods, hurricanes and insect-borne diseases are exacerbated by a warming planet — and the effects, while global, are felt locally.

“The overarching finding is that 61% of those polled think North Carolina leaders need to act urgently on climate change,” Jensen said. “North Carolina is so closely divided about a lot of things, it’s a pretty compelling poll finding.”

“The coronavirus has made voters more cognizant to be prepared for changes going on in the world,” Jensen went on. “It shows what happens when there’s an inability to prepare sufficiently. If you plan properly the effects don’t have to be as bad.”