Trump Wants to Deconstruct the Administrative State. Can He?
On Oct. 9, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intention to repeal one of former President Barack Obama’s signature regulations, the Clean Power Plan that imposed strict emission limits on coal-fired power plants. This is just the latest sign that President Donald Trump is moving forward on his efforts to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
He faces obstacles to achieving “the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulations” as he promised. But Trump’s policies could drastically shift agency resources away from creating new rules and toward changing and even removing many now on the books.
During his first four months in office, for example, Trump signed congressional resolutions overturning 14 Obama administration rules.
He also issued two executive orders that could prove transformative. He ordered all agencies to remove two rules for every new one issued and to cap total regulatory cost at zero. In each agency, he established a “regulatory reform officer,” focused on reducing costs. Agencies are scrambling to identify existing regulations they can cut to offset new actions they wish to pursue.
Presidents have considerable control over the regulations they issue. Congress delegates broad legislative authority to executive branch agencies. Their regulations have the force of law — and do not need congressional approval.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has recognized that regulations are key to achieving policy goals. They have exerted authority over regulatory actions and required agencies to issue new rules only when benefits justify costs. Trump appears to be adhering to that requirement, but is also expecting agencies to work within a budget.
This is a significant change. The requirement for benefit-cost analysis, though crucial, hasn’t constrained the scope and reach of regulation. Like pebbles tossed in a stream, each regulation may do little economic harm, Michael Mandel and Diana Carew of the Progressive Policy Institute note. But these pebbles eventually build up until they’re a dam blocking economic growth and innovation.
Trump’s first executive order, signed in January, told agencies not to add new regulatory pebbles to the stream without removing others that have accumulated over time. His second order — establishing a regulatory reform officer and task force in each agency — might sound like more bureaucracy, but helps implement the first.
Because this team is charged with evaluating the impact of the pebbles in the stream, rather than adding new pebbles, it has the potential to focus attention on the real effects of regulations.