What’s the biggest challenge facing our country today? COVID-19? The millions of jobs that disappeared nearly overnight? Lost health insurance? A looming foreclosure crisis? Based on an executive order issued by President Donald Trump on May 19, it’s none of the above. He returns to an old and tired trope: that the problem is regulation.
On the same day that nearly 1,500 people died from COVID-19 in the United States, making it at least the third leading cause of death, Trump told corporations that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other agencies “to stem the transmission and spread” of COVID-19 would not “form the basis for an enforcement action.” He directed agencies to focus on “assistance for regulated entities,” not assistance for families, workers, or consumers, for medical personnel or essential workers. Advocacy groups and members of the public should watch closely as agencies try to implement Trump’s new order and speak up when harmful changes threaten. And states and local governments must continue to fill the void, as they have throughout the pandemic, by issuing regulations, enforcing laws, and focusing their and our resources on the most critical threat to the country: COVID-19.
The executive order directs agencies to eliminate regulations, to treat corporations with kid gloves and to refrain from enforcement action so long as companies say they’ve tried their best. It’s a staggering diversion of public resources to private corporate interests. Government resources at this moment should be focused on ramping up testing capabilities, ensuring that workplaces are safe and making sure that people can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. This is precisely what many state and local governments have done, while Trump wants agencies to spend the public’s time and money on weakening law enforcement and gutting protections.
Inadequate workplace regulations and limited enforcement have already caused thousands to sicken and die, while the Labor Department stands by and Trump himself urges workers to return to unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order prohibiting termination of employees for refusing to work in unsafe conditions, and a coalition of 13 state attorneys general demanded answers from Amazon about its workplace safety plans and the number of its workers who have tested positive or died of the coronavirus.
Millions of homeowners nationwide struggle to get the mortgage relief Congress meant them to have, setting us up for another foreclosure-fueled Great Recession, but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has said it won’t enforce the rules put in place specifically to prevent that from happening. Federal agencies have blessed banks’ seizure of stimulus checks and greenlighted high-cost lending. But state agencies across the country have stepped in, encouraging lenders to help customers, forbidding abusive practices and warning payday lenders not to profiteer in the pandemic.
As the coronavirus claims more than 100,000 lives, Americans need more science, not less, to guide them in making decisions for at home and at work. But the Trump administration ignores experts when their advice is inconvenient to the agenda at hand. African American, Hispanic, Native American, immigrant and low-income communities hardest hit by COVID, living in industrialized parts of the country, were already suffering from high rates of cardiovascular and respiratory conditions before the pandemic, making them more vulnerable to the lung-ravaging impacts of the disease. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has continued to roll back protections against deadly polluted air. Nine state attorneys general sued the EPA last month to protect our health.
In the current context, last month’s executive order is an utter misfire. The good news, though, is that there are limits to what Trump can do — if we act. Before changing regulations, agencies must publish proposals and provide the public with an opportunity to comment. This gives us time to organize opposition. We can slow and delay and even modify the worst changes by submitting comments to the agencies on their proposals. Anyone can submit a comment on a proposed rule; they can be in plain, simple language.
Comments can make a real difference. In 2017, the Labor Department proposed allowing bosses to keep workers’ tips; after being flooded with over 200,000 comments from an outraged public, then-Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta supported legislation in Congress to prohibit precisely this practice.
The Trump administration keeps rolling out the red carpet for corporate America at the expense of the country’s people. The executive order is one more example of many. But the real problem isn’t regulation, not by a long shot. Government actions, laws, enforcement and yes, regulations — protection of people, not corporations — are an essential part of the solution for the tremendous challenges currently facing our country.
Frances Colón, Ph.D., is a 2020 Yale Public Voices on the Climate Crisis Fellow and the former deputy science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State (2012-2017).
Terri Gerstein is the director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and a Senior Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute; previously she was the Labor Bureau chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office.
Diane Thompson is an Open Society Foundations Leadership in Government Fellow and previously served as deputy assistant director and acting assistant director of the Office of Regulations in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
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