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.”

Commentary, Trump Administration

Calling out conservative hypocrisy on corporate bailouts, economic stimulus spending

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

This time, worker protections should be part of any deal

J. Patrick Coolican, the editor of the Minnesota Reformer did a nice job in his daily newsletter yesterday of summarizing some of the inconvenient truths that should be pointed out as the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress quickly advance plans for massive injections of debt-financed government spending to aid the flagging economy.

As Coolican also notes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others are absolutely right when they argue that impending corporate bailouts should come with major conditions:

With all the talk of bailouts of airlines etc., here’s a must read from Tim Wu of the New York Times on American Airlines, which enters this crisis after a period of massive profitability:

“There are plenty of things American could have done with all that money. It could have stored up its cash reserves for a future crisis, knowing that airlines regularly cycle through booms and busts. It might have tried to decisively settle its continuing contract disputes with pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. It might have invested heavily in better service quality to try to repair its longstanding reputation as the worst of the major carriers. Instead, American blew most of its cash on a stock buyback spree.”

And here’s what we should demand in return:

“We cannot permit American and other airlines to use federal assistance, whether labeled a bailout or not, to weather the coronavirus crisis and then return to business as usual. Before providing any loan relief, tax breaks or cash transfers, we must demand that the airlines change how they treat their customers and employees and make basic changes in industry ownership structure.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says bailouts should come with these conditions:

1. Maintain payroll;
2. enact $15/hr minimum wage by one year after emergency ends;
3. no buybacks, dividends, executive bonuses for minimum three years;
4. must turn over a board seat to workers.

Seems reasonable.

This is not a time for cheap partisan points, but the public needs to be aware of how far Republicans have come on bailouts. I remember the memoir of David Stockman, who was President Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, and his frustration that Reagan caved on the Chrysler bailout even though the consistent free market position is to let firms fail.

Many Republicans were willing to let the economy crash into a depression during the financial crisis rather than bailout Wall Street and the auto companies, especially beginning Jan. 20, 2009. It was a principled position, if shortsighted and callous.

But we should remember that now as they keep upping the ante on a larger and larger deficit financed aid package that will go directly to Americans and also bail out certain industries.

The $1,000 checks proposed by leading Republicans and supported by the White House is an especially galling case. With unemployment skyrocketing as the result of a financial crisis he inherited, President Barack Obama put forth a stimulus package that was 40% tax cuts. It garnered just three Republican votes in the Senate. Imagine what the GOP response would have been if Obama said we should send every American $1,000 per month for three months?

Oh the wails of socialism that would cry out on Fox News. After refusing to support any stimulus, Republicans continued to push austerity fiscal policy for years. And it wasn’t just fiscal policy. Here’s then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was once a frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2011, on then Fed  Chair Ben Bernanke, whose academic specialty is the Great Depression and it’s fair to say knew what he was doing:

“If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous — or treasonous in my opinion.”

Where are these monetary hawks now, with the Fed slashing the rate to zero? Why the change of heart? Have they realized the error of their ways? Was it motivated reasoning that led them to the wrong conclusions? Or were they trying to sabotage Obama’s presidency?

Commentary, COVID-19, Legislature, Trump Administration

From DC to NC, our leaders were not ready for coronavirus

These times are surreal. And these words feel surreal to write.

But many of our leaders, from the White House to the U.S. Senate to the N.C. General Assembly, are criminally incompetent, truth-starved, and woefully unprepared for the coronavirus.

President Trump, while reading from a teleprompter, flubbed his words and the truth multiple times while addressing the nation Wednesday evening, a fitting performance from a commander-in-chief who has lied, manipulated and tortured the truth multiple times during this COVID-19 outbreak. A leader whose administration even now seeks to cut funds to the Centers for Disease Control.

In a crisis requiring credibility, Donald Trump has none. He is George W. Bush, arms crossed, face an impenetrable mask while New Orleans’ 9th Ward drowns, declaring: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Our leaders, from the White House to the U.S. Senate to the N.C. General Assembly, are criminally incompetent, truth-starved, and woefully unprepared for the coronavirus.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate torpedoed an emergency paid sick leave bill this week, claiming, per the usual GOP line, that now is not the time to burden employers.

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

And in Raleigh, NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen chastened Republican lawmakers in the NC General Assembly this week, reminding them of their ill-considered attempt last year to budget in $42 million in cuts for her already overburdened agency. As evidenced by Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2019 veto, Republicans in the legislature and Cooper couldn’t agree on a great many things in 2019. Thankfully, this was one of them.

“As I think about the crisis that we are preparing for,” Cohen told mostly unrepentant legislators, “I don’t see how that would have been tenable in any way, even if without COVID-19. There was no scenario on which we could have delivered on the expectations you have of our department.”

NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (left) and Gov. Roy Cooper (right)

Republicans attempted to pass the blame to Cooper, but however it is spun, there is no one else, no one, responsible for their egregious attempts to slash public health funding in 2019, cuts that are not just ludicrous in hindsight. They were ridiculous in the moment too.

Indeed, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.”

To be sure, coronavirus would have been a disaster no matter who was in power, Democrats or Republicans. Its exponential spread makes governments, hospitals and businesses inevitably look flat-footed. But it is hard to imagine a group more unfit for leadership than these figures in D.C. and Raleigh, figures who should comfort not confound.

There will be those who screech that now is not a time to politicize a crisis, but they forget that there is nothing, nor has there even been, anything very political about the truth. Now is the time to demand accountability the most, no matter how normalized dishonesty may have become in the last four years.

We will come through this, of course. And hopefully we will do so with a broader appreciation for public health, good government and timely, factual information. It remains to be seen however whether we will emerge with the same respect for many of our leaders.