If we were to search for the absolute best leaders for the different cabinet positions in the White House, we’d find Trump’s picks directly opposite them. A cabinet leader should support the mission of his or her cabinet, and seek to ensure it operates to the best of its ability. Trump’s picks have been, almost universally and vehemently, opposed to both the work and the premise of the organizations they’ve been picked to lead.
I shudder at who Trump will pick for Department of Interior and the EPA, and suspect that they’ll be very similar to Ronald Reagan’s picks of James G. Watt and Anne Gorsuch, respectively. Both individuals loathed the federal government. Watt spent his short tenure as Department of Interior trying to give away public land resource rights to every polluting industry in the United States, and Anne Gorsuch packed the EPA with industry cronies, starved it of money, and did everything in her power to stop it from enforcing laws it was tasked with enforcing.
The only saving grace is they were so controversial, so inept, and so fanatical that both were forced to resign within their first terms. Even then, their efforts damaged and demoralized the departments they led.
Starve the Friend
The simplest and most blunt instrument of damage to an agency or department is to starve it of funds. If the agency is regulatory, not providing enough funds to enforce regulations is a sure way of hindering the regulations.
Ronald Reagan, who disliked the EPA as much as Trump does, tried to cut its budget by 25%. He didn’t succeed, but he came close.
In addition, agency heads can redirect the use of funds. We already know of one likely redirection of funds related to NASA. Trump’s advisors have stated that funding for NASA’s research on climate change will be curtailed, and the funds directed to “solar system exploration”. This is as much of a major hit to combating climate change as our pulling out of the Paris Agreement. The data that NASA collects is invaluable.
Feed the Beast
Some regulations have strict enforcement provisions, but many are discretionary. As examples, the head of the EPA or the newly installed leader of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could push people in their respective departments to decide in favor of industry whenever they have the discretionary power to do so. The same can apply when it comes to inspectors and rule makers in the FDA and the USDA.
In the Department of the Interior, requirements related to resource allocation can be relaxed. This could lead to more coal, gas, and oil leases, trees cut for timber, more acreage for cattle grazing permits, not to mention opening up mining where it was previously disallowed on public land.
Enforcement of existing water and air regulations can be discouraged, to allow more agricultural and industrial pollution. Fewer endangered species will make it to the lists, and to the protection they need.
We won’t see wholesale giving away of public land, but we could see more dubious land exchanges, where prime public land is exchanged for land of less commercial value. We should also expect to see new “opportunities” to allow commercial exploitation of our parks.
Destruction From Inaction
Cabinet leaders can cause significant damage, both in what they do, and what they don’t do.
Think about the current Justice Department and Loretta Lynch’s investigation of the Baltimore police department, and the subsequent findings of civil rights abuses.Lynch found the justification for conducting police department investigations in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I find it difficult, nay impossible, to believe that such an investigation would occur under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. He could choose not to instigate this type of investigation because the laws I just mentioned leave the choice up to the Attorney General.
The regulatory process has to follow strict procedures and timelines. The new head of the EPA can’t just toss aside existing regulations, such as the fuel efficiency standards. To modify the standards to meet the sudden and voracious demands outlined in a letter sent by the auto industry to Trump will require a long and thoughtful re-evaluation of the criteria that formed the standards. The same standards which the auto industry originally agreed to.
But the new EPA director could make the move to relax the fuel efficiency standards, in addition to others. Trump has promised to do away with regulations, to ease restrictions on business, to lighten the regulatory load on industry. The prime location for most of this movement will be within the EPA and Department of Treasury (financial regulations), though we’ll see a push for less regulation and restrictions in the Departments of Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services…well, across all departments for the most part.
Then there’s the Congressional impact on the laws that serve as the basis for the regulations, but we won’t get into that today.
Bureaucracy to the Rescue
What will be the primary saving grace from the destruction these ill-equipped, fanatical leaders can bring?
Federal departments and agencies are large, with big budgets, and considerable responsibility. How the organization operate is guided by procedures and rules that have been in place for decades, if not centuries. For the government to function, it can’t go through a complete upheaval every four years. It can’t be completely undermined by an incapable President and his ill-considered choices. Bureaucracy is the basis for maintaining a functioning government.
Most of Trump’s picks are inexperienced, and ill-equipped for their jobs. Meanwhile, the work in the federal agencies and departments is done by career employees, who understand what they need to do to keep things running and fulfill the obligations of their job. Though these employees can be severely hindered in what they do, especially with budget cuts, they’re also capable of slowing, or even stopping, permanent harm.
Unfortunately, not all career employees will dig in and resist the temptation for destruction. For those who welcome the devastation Trump will bring, and in those instances where such destruction can’t be stopped, that’s when the NGOs, the non-profits step in.
Organizations tasked with enforcing laws have to continue to enforce the laws, whether Trump likes the laws or not. In most cases, if a law isn’t enforced non-profits interested in upholding the law step in with lawsuits, demanding enforcement. The worst the law is mangled and ignored, the more likely the non-profits will succeed and the government will have to enforce the law.
If you’re looking for non-profits to donate to, look at the size of their legal teams and the success of their past legal actions. Frankly, donations to this organization are a better use of your money than donating to a vote recount.
For all of this to work, though, detrimental actions must be exposed. Whenever a rule modification or new regulation is proposed, we have to be willing to provide the comments the government must seek. This doesn’t mean signing a petition with our name—it means preparing and providing an informed, individual comment. The days of signing petitions and thinking we’ve made a difference are over. Government agencies treat petitions as one comment, no matter how many people sign it. And, bluntly, Trump doesn’t give a damn about petitions with thousands of names. All he cares about is how he appears on TV.
Which means Trump’s cabinets’ harmful actions need to reach a wider audience. We can’t depend on the major media companies doing so on their own, as too many, especially TV-based news organizations, seem to want to focus purely on revenue rather than reporting the news. But they pay attention to social media. If we make enough noise, they’ll listen. And report.
We have transparency laws on our side, though I expect the new cabinet picks will do their best to undermine them. Personally, I’m taking a page from my friends at Judicial Watch and will be ready with FOIA requests at a moment’s notice. Trump may be flying under the radar now, and as President, he’s exempt from FOIA laws, but his cabinet isn’t it. What worked for the conservatives in their relentless attack on the State Department and Hillary Clinton can now work for us.
Originally appeared in Crooks & Liars.
Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0