The Truth About Trump’s Record on Regulation

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Is President Donald Trump dismantling the regulatory state? Not close.

To be sure, recent headlines give the impression that he is.

On one day, the Department of Transportation proposes to scale back fuel-economy requirements for motor vehicles.

On another, the Department of Education proposes to eliminate regulations on for-profit colleges, designed to protect against exploitation and abuse of students.

On yet another, the Environmental Protection Agency proposes to scrap the Clean Power Plan, designed to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions.

Whether you celebrate or deplore these initiatives, each of them is important. But let’s take a broader perspective.

Under George W. Bush, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 2,500 final regulations. Under Barack Obama, it approved about 2,100 final regulations. (Disclaimer: From 2009 to 2012, I served as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, helping to oversee the regulatory process.)

By comparison, the Trump administration has repealed . . . dozens of finalized regulations.

Estimates vary, because people dispute what counts as a repeal, and also what counts as a regulation. If we say that Trump administration has gotten rid of around 100, well, that’s about 2 percent of the number of regulations finalized over the past 16 years.

Why is the number of repeals so low? For those who want it to be higher, it might be tempting to point to disorganization or incompetence. But that would be unfair. A lot of regulations deliver benefits far in excess of costs. Each year, many of them are saving hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) — or hundreds of lives (or more).

Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you won’t want to get rid of those. Trump’s regulators deserve credit for reaffirming a wide range of initiatives that are doing, or will do, more good than harm.

There’s a separate point. Whenever public officials want to eliminate regulations, they ask members of the public, including affected companies, to identify promising candidates for repeal. People will come up with some excellent ideas, and it’s worthwhile to pay careful attention to them. But regulators are often surprised to find that the list can be closer to a trickle than a flood.

The reason is that after regulations have been on the books for a while, people get accustomed to them. Companies aren’t eager to have to make large-scale adjustments, especially if they have changed their practices to adapt to previous requirements.

None of this means that Trump’s regulatory record is the same as that of his predecessors. He is trying to eliminate some regulations that greatly matter (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse), and those efforts continue. Much more fundamentally, he’s substantially slowed the flow of new ones.

Consider some numbers.

From Bush’s inauguration to Sept. 1, 2002, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 400 proposed regulations and about 500 final regulations. From Obama’s inauguration to Sept. 1, 2010, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 270 proposed regulations and about 470 final regulations.

Contrary to public impressions, the Bush and Obama administrations look pretty similar, with a slowdown under Obama.

The Trump administration is a big outlier. From Trump’s inauguration to the present, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs approved about 170 proposed regulations and about 160 final regulations. That’s a major reduction in the flow of new regulations.

From one point of view, the reduction can be counted as a significant achievement. But here’s a little secret: Believe it or not, it’s likely that in 2017 and 2018, the U.S. would also have seen a slowdown in regulatory activity under Hillary Clinton.

The reason is that under Obama, officials worked very hard, and for several years, to identify ways to make progress on the president’s priorities through executive actions — designed, for example, to increase food safety, to protect workers, to safeguard civil rights and to clean the air. A Democratic administration would not find much more in the way of low-hanging fruit. With respect to regulation, it would probably have gone pretty slowly.

Still, Trump’s effort to push the pause button has worked — and it is undoubtedly more dramatic than what would have happened in a Democratic administration.

But the largest lesson lies elsewhere: For any president, it’s a lot easier to reduce the flow of new regulations than to eliminate those on the books.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "The Cost-Benefit Revolution" and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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