Twitter Fog Obscures Environmental Policy Changes
By James Asher
Between Jan. 20 and July 19 of this year, Donald J. Trump tweeted or retweeted 2,814 times – a Twitter pace unrivaled since his 2016 election campaign. A master of the social media platform, Trump boasts that his tweeting is a way around the purveyors of “fake news” and is his direct line to 63,203,169 followers.
His Twitter blasts have become—for better or worse—a principal source of news for the nation’s journalists. One need only watch the news chyrons on CNN, Fox and elsewhere to see how quickly a Trump tweet becomes news and then analysis and then critical or complimentary commentary, depending on the outlet.
One overlooked result of the President’s Twitter news fog is how effectively it obscures the real news of how the Trump administration has been dismantling the regulatory apparatus of the federal government. Because he is deploying low-visibility levers of power – executive orders, policy revisions and new rule making – rarely do those changes get noticed by the wider public. Nor are they reported on in depth by journalists preoccupied with Trump’s distracting Twitter posts.
Rules rollbacks obscured by fog
Nowhere is breadth of change so pervasive as it is in regulations affecting the environment. Environmental policies and regulations passed since the 1970s, which have had demonstrably positive effects on air and water pollution, as well as soil contamination and preservation of sensitive habitats, have either been rolled back or are targeted for extinction.
The Environmental Integrity Project estimates that 80 separate environmental regulations are currently under attack. They were originally put in place to control water pollution, smog, mercury and greenhouse gases, among others.
Some changes have been dramatic enough to get widespread coverage, like the administration’s recent proposals to roll back key parts of the Endangered Species Act or to permit the use of explosive cyanide devises to kill coyotes and foxes. Both ideas provoked a massive public outcry and the cyanide bomb plan died in recent days.
And some of these proposals echo standard Republican philosophy. The Bush administration, for instance, encouraged coal use when it enacted a Clear Skies Initiative that, despite its name, permitted more pollution.
Here are some rule changes and executive orders that are flying under the radar:
- Increasing timber logging in National Forests with little oversight.
- Raising the commercial catch limits on blacktip and hammerhead sharks in the Gulf of Mexico from 45 to 55 per boat, per trip.
- Allowing potential damage to Beluga whales, Steller sea lions and other marine mammals from seismic exploration for oil and natural gas in the Cook Inlet of Alaska.
- Reducing the number of advisory committees within the federal bureaucracy by two-thirds, which many advocates believe will curtail independent scientific advice for federal decision-making.
- The same executive order that voided Obama-era executive orders and rules on climate change also is requiring agencies to get rid of regulations that inhibit fossil fuel energy production.
- In July, the EPA finalized its decision not to ban a pesticide used on a variety of U.S. crops and nuts that produces brain damage in children and in unborn infants. Researchers in Sweden and Denmark found the substance in the urine of humans who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, despite a ban on its use in those nations.
And the list goes on. The Trump administration’s anti-regulation campaign is being widely applied within the federal bureaucracy. Not all of the changes, however, are the result of philosophical differences with Democrats.
Many are the result of lobbying.
There are the “revolving door” lobbyists—those who left lobbying jobs to join the administration, often overseeing departments or regulations they had opposed in their previous positions. And there are those who have left the administration to join lobbying firms.
According to ProPublica, an investigative news outlet, 230 Trump appointees were either lobbyists before they took their jobs or left the administration to become lobbyists.
Of that total, 13 were at the Environmental Protection Agency. Fourteen were at the Department of Energy and 16 were at the Department of Agriculture—all agencies whose regulations and policies affect aspects of the environment.
Then there is the money being spent on lobbying.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonprofit that monitors the reports filed by lobbyists, tallies up the money spent.
- More than 11,000 lobbyists disclosed that, so far in the Trump administration, they have spent $5.17 billion to support their positions in Washington.
- In the first six months of 2019, lobbyists spent $1.72 billion, slightly less than in the entirety of 2018.
While the bulk of the lobbyists’ attention is spent on Congress, they also reported thousands of contacts with the White House and with separate federal departments and agencies.
Beyond the White House, lobbyists worked especially hard to influence policies at the EPA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, Treasury and Health and Human Services.
This intersection of lobbying and disruptive policy change is producing considerable angst among those who have faith in the value of government regulation. It’s also a confirmation of what Barack Obama said during the early days of his first term. “Elections have consequences.”
James Asher, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, is the former Washington Bureau Chief for the McClatchy Co. He also worked for The Philadelphia inquirer and The Baltimore Sun.