Efforts to kill Obamacare have failed, at least for now. Tax “reform” – which really means big tax cuts for the rich – faces doubtful prospects. Indeed, these prospects may have become even more doubtful thanks to Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin: Her now infamous Instagram rant may open at least a few voters’ eyes to the contempt “populist” Donald Trump’s inner circle really feels for the little people.
So many observers are asking whether Trump can restart his stalled agenda. But that turns out to be a bad question, in a couple of ways.
First, Trump doesn’t really have an agenda beyond “winning.” He has instincts and prejudices, but no interest in the details, or even the broad outlines, of policy. For example, it’s obvious that he never had any idea what was in his own party’s health care plan. And he has definitely shown no interest in turning his populist rhetoric into anything concrete.
As a result, whatever personal feuds Trump may have with the Republican establishment, that establishment – the same interest groups and ideologues who’ve been driving GOP positions for decades – is setting his administration’s policy agenda.
Which brings me to my second point: While the legislative agenda does indeed appear stalled, a lot of what those interest groups want doesn’t require legislation and is anything but stalled. This is especially true for environmental policy, where decisions about how to interpret and enforce laws already on the books can have a huge impact.
So Trump’s true legacy may well be defined not by the laws he does or more likely doesn’t pass, but by his decision to put Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt effectively acted as a servant, not of the public, but of polluting industries. That’s not an accusation; it’s confirmed by his own email trail.
Now, at a time when much of the Trump administration seems paralyzed by lack of leadership and key personnel, Pruitt is firing on all cylinders – but not because he’s making the EPA more effective. On the contrary, he’s engaged in sabotage from the top, moving quickly to undermine his own agency’s mission – not just its efforts against climate change, but its role in protecting the environment across the board.
Trump won’t make America great again, but Pruitt, who clearly has Trump’s full backing, can do a lot to make it polluted again.
This is an unpopular agenda, or it would be if people knew about it.
The improvement in air and water quality since the EPA was founded in 1970 is one of America’s great policy success stories. It’s also largely unsung.
When Trump was young, New York’s air was filthy, and smog sometimes killed hundreds; meanwhile, New York’s own governor described the Hudson as “one great septic tank.” But Trump probably doesn’t remember that or realize that regulation made the difference, and neither do many voters.
True, that could change quickly if people realized that the relatively clean air and water they take for granted was being put at risk. Think of how support for the Affordable Care Act surged once people realized that coverage for millions might really be taken away. There would be a similar but even bigger surge in support for environmental protection if, say, Republicans tried to repeal the Clean Water Act.
As I said, however, Pruitt can do a lot of harm without changing the law. He can, for example, reverse the ban on a pesticide that the EPA’s own scientists say may damage children’s nervous systems. Or he can move to scrap a rule that would limit heavy-metal contamination from power-plant wastewater.
And he can cripple enforcement of the rules he doesn’t undo simply by working with Trump to starve his own agency of personnel and funds. The Trump budget released in May won’t actually become law, but it was an indication of priorities – and it called for cutting funding for the EPA by 31 percent, more than any other agency.
Individually, no one of these actions is likely to be treated as front-page news, especially given everything else going on. Cumulatively, however, they will kill or cripple large numbers of Americans – for that is what pollution does, even if the damage is gradual and sometimes invisible.
By the way, if you’re wondering whether an anti-environmental agenda will at least be good for job creation, the answer is no, it won’t. Coal jobs, in particular, aren’t coming back no matter how much leeway we give corporations to blow the tops off mountains and dump toxins in waterways. This agenda will, however, be worth billions to certain campaign donors.
So don’t say that the administration’s agenda is stalled. Some parts are, but other parts are moving right along. When it comes to environmental policy, Trump will definitely change America – and his legacy will literally be toxic.