clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

House conservatives' sweeping plan for Trump's first 100 days, explained

The Freedom Caucus has a plan.

Sad Obama

Thursday morning, the House Freedom Caucus, the main group representing the far right of House Republicans, released an ambitious regulatory — or, really, deregulatory — agenda for the Trump administration to pursue. It consists of a detailed, agency-by-agency list of regulations, mostly imposed during President Obama’s administration, that it would like to see repealed or rolled back.

The Trump administration likely won’t do 100 percent of what’s on the menu here, but in his Cabinet appointments Trump has largely assembled a team of down-the-line conservatives, so it’s a good look at the direction policy is likely to take. For your reading pleasure, we’re providing a summary of the main highlights, organized by topic rather than by agency, since citizens are probably more interested in what’s going to be changing than in how the bureaucratic boxes line up.

To get a flavor for what’s in store, there is one line in the extensive document really worth reading. The Freedom Caucus places each of 228 regulations slated for elimination into a grid, one of whose columns is cost — and in most cases they do, indeed, provide an estimated cost of compliance with the regulation divorced from any discussion of the benefits. When it comes to Rule 211, network neutrality, however, they simply state: “All regulations carry costs, which are inevitably passed on to consumers in one form or another.”

It’s not clear exactly where the Freedom Caucus got this idea or why they think it’s true, but as a broad philosophical statement it’s admirably clear and concise. The network neutrality rule’s proponents say that given the lack of competition in wireless broadband markets, requiring infrastructure owners to treat all internet traffic the same is useful in promoting competition among online services and minimizing infrastructure monopolists’ ability to extract monopoly profits. One might or might not agree with that analysis, but from a normal person’s point of view it would at least be a question worth asking.

The Freedom Caucus view, by contrast, is that all you really need to know about Network Neutrality regulations — or any other kind of regulation — is that it is a regulation and all regulations, by definition, are costly. It’s simply not possible to imagine a rule that corrects for negative externalities, asymmetrical information, imperfect competition, myopia, or any other problem in a socially beneficial way.

Eliminate every program that takes on climate change

The Freedom Caucus is proposing to root out nearly every program in the federal government intended to address climate change — targeting some 73 rules and regulations in all.

The caucus targets obvious stuff for removal, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s sweeping Obama-era regulations to cut carbon dioxide from power plants, trucks, and aircraft, as well as rules to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas operations. (With one exception: The caucus does not target fuel economy rules for cars and light trucks, which automakers have been complying with for years and are set to rise through 2025.)

But the document goes far beyond that: The caucus would scrap a variety of Energy Department energy efficiency rules on washing machines, air conditioners, and dozens more appliances. It would cancel all US contributions to the international Paris climate accord — including aid to developing countries — and eliminate the State Department’s special envoy for climate change. And it scraps a Pentagon mandate to pursue biofuels and other energy alternatives.

We’re not done yet! The caucus asks that President Trump revoke a bunch of Obama-era executive orders telling federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, to plan for the effects of climate change, and to take into account climate impacts of all future agency actions.

Also targeted for removal: a bunch of regulations around conventional air pollution, including the EPA’s 2011 standard on ground-level ozone pollution, the EPA’s rule to regulate sulfur dioxide from coal plants that crosses state lines, and the Tier 3 Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards to further reduce NOx and other pollutants from vehicles. The Freedom Caucus typically lists the costs of these regulations ($1.4 billion for the ozone rule) without mentioning any possible public health benefits.

So what would happen if the Freedom Caucus got its way here? While a repeal of these regulations would benefit fossil fuel producers at the margins, they are unlikely to halt the sharp decline of the US coal industry (which is mainly being hurt by the abundance of cheap gas from fracking). And repeal of these rules wouldn’t halt the growth in wind and solar (which is being driven by state mandates and federal tax incentives).

But repealing all these rules would significantly bog down efforts to stop global warming. As part of global climate talks, the Obama administration had pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That was going to be tough even with all these regulations in place. Without them, that goal now looks unattainable — barring some major unforeseen technological advances.

Say goodbye to Michelle Obama’s legacy on nutrition

First lady Michelle Obama has fought fiercely to improve nutrition and curb the obesity epidemic — both symbolically and through legislation. Now her work is in peril under the forthcoming Trump administration.

The House Freedom Caucus wants to repeal some of the key rules Obama championed to improve school nutrition and transparency in the food industry.

In particular, the caucus wants to claw back the school breakfast and lunch nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and remove the new Nutrition Facts Panel requirements, which were scheduled to go into effect in July 2018.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required the federal government to use recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to make the National School Lunch Program more nutritious, with more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and less sodium and meat. The law also mandated that schools stop marketing the fat-, sugar-, and salt-laden snacks — the sugary beverages, the chocolate bars — in cafeterias and vending machines, and replace them with lower-calorie and more nutritious alternatives like fruit cups and granola bars. Finally, it made it possible for schools with high poverty student rates to provide free breakfasts in addition to lunches, without requiring paperwork on whether individual students meet certain poverty criteria.

According to the Freedom Caucus, however, “the regulations have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement.” And it recommended that the new nutrition standards be repealed.

Actually removing these standards won’t be easy. As of December 2015, the USDA reported that 97 percent of US schools are now meeting the new school nutrition standards. And most parents support the efforts.

But dismantling the policies wouldn’t be impossible. Right now there are Senate and House versions of bills to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs going through Congress. The House bill would undo many of the new school meal and snack standards, while the Senate agriculture committee bill would keep some of those standards intact. If the House bill passes, said Juliana Cohen, a nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, “it would roll back key provisions of the standards to essentially what they were previously.”

The other key rule the Freedom Caucus wants to dismantle is the new Nutrition Facts labels, which were scheduled to appear on millions of food packages within two years.

The labels aim to give consumers long-sought-after information about added sugars in foods — data that health advocates had pressed the food and beverage industry to provide for decades. They would also list nutrition information about serving sizes in portions that more accurately reflect how much people eat.

Notably, the Freedom Caucus didn’t target the June 2015 FDA ban on trans fats, a policy that brings the US in line with other countries that have already banned the harmful fat, including Denmark, Austria, Iceland, and Switzerland.

Roll back labor regulations

Since the 1930s, the United States has regulated the relationship between employees and employers, but in recent decades those regulations have been enforced less and less strictly. That has alarmed labor rights groups, which believe it has opened the door for employers to abuse their employees’ rights.

So the Obama administration has been working to beef up the enforcement of these rules. One of the most important changes: raising the minimum salary for employees to be “exempt” from rules that guarantee workers time-and-a-half pay if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Under the old rule, employers could generally classify people as exempt — and deny them overtime benefits — if they made more than $23,660. Obama wanted to raise this threshold to $47,476, giving millions of middle-income workers overtime protections they did not have before.

That rule is currently being challenged in court, but even if it survives judicial review, the House Freedom Caucus wants to repeal it.

Also on the chopping block: a rule that treats McDonald’s as the joint employer of workers at McDonald’s franchise restaurants. Under the old rule, each separate McDonald’s franchise was treated as a separate business under labor law, which insulated McDonald’s itself from liability for labor problems at individual restaurants.

This rule, too, is being challenged in court, and it’s also on the House Freedom Caucus’s hit list.

Create a friendlier environment for for-profit colleges

When Obama came into office in 2009, for-profit colleges were riding high — and the students who attended them were often faring poorly. They were far more likely than their peers to default on student loans after they graduated or dropped out.

Due to a combination of federal pressure, new regulations, and shifting economic winds, the for-profit college sector is now a shadow of its former self. Institutions like Corinthian Colleges, ITT Tech, and the Art Institutes have shuttered or sold off campuses in recent years. Enrollment has fallen by more than 10 percent in 2014-’15 from the previous year. But House Republicans want to get rid of Obama’s signature initiative to rein them in.

The Freedom Caucus wants to repeal the “gainful employment” rule, the key method the Obama administration has used to impose accountability standards for career-oriented programs, most of them at for-profit colleges, put into place in 2014. The rule essentially tries to ensure that students don’t leave school burdened with more debt than they can reasonably repay. The regulation will eventually cut off federal financial aid the main source of income for these companies — to programs whose graduates and dropouts have loan payments that are too high relative to their incomes.

The caucus also wants to repeal a newer regulation published this year, called “defense to repayment,” which gives loan forgiveness to students who attended a college that defrauded or misled them and put colleges on the hook for the federal government’s losses. This rule was put into place after pressure from “debt strikers,” former students at the defunct for-profit colleges who asked the Education Department to help them with their non-dischargeable debt.

It’s not clear if just repealing those regulations would be enough to make the for-profit colleges bounce back, at least in the short term. The strict sanctions of the gainful employment rule haven’t taken effect yet and so didn’t cause most of the enrollment declines of the past few years, but students had begun to realize these institutions’ reputations. And the defense to repayment regulation is very new. But repealing either or both of these regulations would let for-profit colleges try to recoup their losses with much less federal scrutiny — and with little recourse for students whose colleges took advantage of them.

A better deal for the banking industry

While many on the left criticized the Obama administration for not taking big swings to break up America’s largest banks and prosecute their executives, his administration did promulgate a wide array of rules aimed at making the financial sector less risky, less profitable, and less likely to find itself in need of a taxpayer-financed bailout in the future.

The Freedom Caucus wants to basically undo all that. Whether it’s a Treasury Department rule trying to assess banks’ liquidity risk, an FDIC rule restricting how much risk banks can take on when doing derivatives trades, or a Federal Reserve ruling making sure the largest and most economically important banks are subject to heightened regulatory scrutiny, the caucus wants to unleash the power of the financial industry to do what it wants with less supervision. Meanwhile it also wants to repeal a couple of rules aimed at ensuring that the government will be compensated for the cost of any possible future bailouts.

Last but by no means least, without calling for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be formally eliminated, the Freedom Caucus calls for a law “to require that no deference be given to the interpretation of consumer financial law by the Bureau” — which would make it essentially impossible for the CFPB to do anything.

Suspend protections for transgender kids in schools

Over the past few years, the Obama administration has interpreted federal civil rights laws to protect transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and schools. The reasoning: Federal laws ban discrimination based on sex, and discrimination against trans people is fundamentally rooted in stereotypes and expectations based on people’s sex assigned at birth — so anti-trans discrimination is sex discrimination and, therefore, illegal.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration released a guidance that argued these protections for trans people extend to kids in federally funded schools. And since that’s the case, the administration said, trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity in schools — rebuking newly passed laws like North Carolina’s, which effectively forced trans kids to use the bathroom that aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth instead of their gender identity.

The House Freedom Caucus wants to repeal the entire guidance, stripping trans people of nondiscrimination protections in public schools.

The caucus argues that the guidance is burdensome for states like North Carolina. It also called it an example of government overreach, supposedly because the federal government is trying to overturn local and state laws.

But the House Freedom Caucus also argued that the law poses a risk to kids. This is essentially what North Carolina lawmakers argued when they passed their law: If trans people are allowed to use the bathroom for their gender identity, men will pose as trans women and go into women’s bathrooms to sexually assault or harass women. But there is zero evidence this actually happens — and none of the states or US jurisdictions that have passed laws protecting trans kids in bathrooms have reported any incidents along the lines of what North Carolina and other opponents of LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections claim.

Restrict access to a proven treatment for opioid and heroin addiction

In 2015, drug overdoses were linked to more deaths than any other year on record: more than 52,000. That’s more Americans who died of overdoses than those who died due to gun violence in 2015, car crashes in 2015, and HIV/AIDS at its peak in 1995.

The root cause: the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic. Tens of thousands of Americans’ deaths have been linked to opioid overdoses since at least 2010, and these deaths have been steadily increasing since the 1990s.

One of the Obama administration’s key responses to the epidemic was to increase access to medication-assisted treatment, particularly buprenorphine. This opioid can be prescribed by doctors to, when taken as prescribed, prevent withdrawal from painkillers and heroin abuse without a similar risk of overdose or addiction, letting someone get off dangerous painkillers and heroin much more easily.

Decades of research have deemed these kinds of medication-assisted treatments effective for helping treat opioid abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and World Health Organization acknowledge their medical value.

But federal law currently restricts how many prescriptions of buprenorphine a doctor can issue to up to 100 patients, limiting how many people can get this treatment. The Obama administration in July issued a rule that expanded the patient cap from 100 to 275, which the administration is allowed to do under the Controlled Substances Act.

The House Freedom Caucus rescinds the Obama administration’s rule, putting the cap back at 100 and limiting how many patients can get access to these drugs. This is something that some “tough on drug” advocates have been clamoring for: They worry that if the cap on buprenorphine is too high, doctors will be unscrupulous in their prescriptions, and patients taking advantage of the situation will take on much more buprenorphine than they need so they can then turn around and sell it on the black market — where buprenorphine, which is an opioid, can be bought for relatively high prices for recreational or medical use.

The evidence suggests that this wouldn’t happen — that the real problem driving the diversion and trafficking of buprenorphine is that it’s too difficult to legally, affordably obtain for medical purposes. But the House Freedom Caucus is apparently concerned enough about the possibility of diversion — and perhaps what it sees as Obama-era regulations overriding Congress’s will — to rescind the Obama administration’s rule.

A taste of what’s to come on women’s reproductive health

Many Republicans would like to stop abortion from happening altogether, but they can’t do that directly since abortion is legal. What they can do, however, is try to strong-arm health care providers into deciding to stop their abortion services to avoid losing other funding.

That’s the unifying theme behind two regulations the Freedom Caucus wants to repeal, one that involves Planned Parenthood and another that involves foreign aid.

The Obama administration recently took steps to keep states from defunding Planned Parenthood for political reasons through the Title X family planning program, in a rule that was proposed in September but just finalized Wednesday.

The very next day, that rule was on the Freedom Caucus’s chopping block. It’s not too surprising, given the GOP’s years-long war on Planned Parenthood and ongoing attempts to strip the health care organization of public funding at both the state and federal levels.

The Freedom Caucus also targets foreign aid for family planning by reinstating the Reagan-era Mexico City Policy, otherwise known as the “global gag rule,” which Obama repealed in 2009. The gag rule bars federal funding for foreign NGOs that either provide or promote abortion.

The “promote” part of that is incredibly broad. International family planning organizations can’t count on US funding if they so much as refer their patients somewhere else for an abortion, or even mention abortion as an option to their patients at all. The Helms Amendment already blocks US foreign aid from directly funding abortion overseas — but the global gag rule goes much farther.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Caucus definitely wants to do something about the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit, and maybe other preventive services for women like no-copay STI screening or well-woman visits. But just going by this list of regulations, it’s not totally clear what that will look like.

“It’s hard to know exactly what they would be doing,” said Laurie Sobel, senior policy analyst for women's health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “They might not know yet either.”

The specific regulations listed in the Freedom Caucus document deal with the Obama administration’s religious exemptions and accommodations to the birth control mandate. These were hotly contested in the Hobby Lobby and Zubik v. Burwell Supreme Court cases, and some regulatory changes were made as a result.

Most likely, the Freedom Caucus would try to exempt any employer who has a religious or moral objection to the birth control benefit from being required to offer a plan that provides it.

It may also try to “severely weaken” coverage of the full range of contraceptive services, Sobel said. Right now, insurers have to cover at least one of 18 different birth control methods, but that could change.

Emergency contraception may be the main target there, though. The document makes an untrue claim, common among religious objectors to birth control, that emergency contraceptives are “effectively abortion.”

Eliminate new food safety measures

In 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in more than 70 years.

In the past, the food industry was only required to react to outbreaks of food poisoning. One in six Americans get sick from food every year, and health officials have traced terrible and deadly outbreaks of food poisoning to everything from caramel apples to peanuts and cheese in recent months. The Modernization Act shifted the industry into prevention mode, forcing manufacturers to take measures that stop outbreaks before they happen.

But the Freedom Caucus wants to repeal pieces of this legislation, too. In particular, the group singled out the “intentional adulteration” rule, which requires both domestic and foreign food facilities — for the first time — to show evidence that they're aware of contamination risks to their products, and that they're taking steps to mitigate them.

Weirdly, another food safety focus for the Freedom Caucus is ... catfish. The FDA used to inspect catfish, but that job got moved to the US Department of Agriculture under the 2008 Farm Bill, giving catfish the unique distinction of being the only fish to be inspected by the agency. Some lawmakers see that as government waste (there’s a website dedicated to the push to repeal the rule), and the Freedom Caucus will also lobby to remove the regulation.

Set immigration agents and local cops loose on unauthorized immigrants

Most of the 22 immigration regulations that the House Freedom Caucus wants President-elect Trump to revoke don’t have a cost attached to them.

There’s a reason for that: Most of them don’t actually cost the federal government anything at all.

When it comes to immigration, the purpose of the House Freedom Caucus’s deregulation push isn’t exactly to shrink the federal government. It’s to make it easier for both federal immigration agents and local law enforcement to be as aggressive as they like in apprehending, detaining, and deporting unauthorized immigrants — by undoing Obama administration guidance about which immigrants ought to be “enforcement priorities,” and which should be protected from deportation.

Unsurprisingly, to that end, the Freedom Caucus recommends that President Trump get rid of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which would make 740,000 immigrants no longer able to work legally in the US, and make them vulnerable again to deportation. (It also wants to revoke the Obama administration’s 2014 attempts to expand deferred action to millions more people, even though that program is moribund anyway after getting held up in court.)

But the Freedom Caucus doesn’t just want Trump to remove protections from unauthorized immigrants. It also wants him to revoke a series of memos issued under Obama that instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement about which kinds of immigrants should be targeted for deportation (as well as when ICE ought to ask local jails to hold immigrants so they can be picked up for deportation).

Immigration agents in the field chafed under these memos, arguing that the government was keeping them from doing their jobs by telling them not to go after certain unauthorized immigrants. Conservative lawmakers, and the president-elect of the United States, agree — and the Freedom Caucus, accordingly, would give immense power to field agents to determine which immigrants to gather up, detain, and deport.

The Freedom Caucus’s deregulation agenda would also restore the ability of local law enforcement to be a pipeline for deportation. It would undo changes to federal/local agreements that required law enforcement to actually pursue charges against immigrants it caught and referred to ICE — rather than just hoovering people up on minor violations as an excuse to turn them over. And it would restore the Secure Communities program, which allowed ICE to find out about, and request custody of, any immigrant checked into a local jail.

One memo the Freedom Caucus wants to revoke cautioned ICE agents to be careful they weren’t trying to deport someone who was actually the victim of or witness to a crime, not the perpetrator; in domestic violence incidents, for example, police often take both people into custody and sort out which one is the offender afterward.

Not all the regulations the Freedom Caucus wants to eliminate are restrictions on immigration enforcement. Some of them make it easier for people to “get legal” if they qualify for green cards or citizenship but are in the US without papers — such as immediate relatives of armed forces recruits or spouses of US citizens (whom the Obama administration allowed to apply for a “waiver” to get a green card without having to leave the US). One regulation the Freedom Caucus would undo simply made it easier for green card holders to pay for their citizenship applications by credit card, and created a public awareness campaign encouraging people to become US citizens.

And instead of deregulating immigration to make it easier for businesses (as the agenda does in other respects), the Freedom Caucus targets high-skilled immigration to the US — echoing the “pro–American worker” stance of President-elect Trump and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions. The Freedom Caucus asks Trump to undo a regulation that gave high-skilled workers on H-1B visas more flexibility during their time in the US (in addition to giving the government more flexibility in counting the number of H-1B visas so it could issue more). And it wants to revoke a rule that allowed foreign STEM students to stay in the US for longer after getting their degrees.

On issues of legal immigration, though, the Trump administration would have to formally eliminate formal regulations — which takes months. Simply nullifying a memo, on the other hand, is instantaneous. If Trump followed the Freedom Caucus’s recommendations to the letter, he could, within the first days of his presidency, restore the aggressiveness of the Bush era of immigration enforcement — at the efficiency and scope of the Obama administration. He could make deportation a real, daily threat for all 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, simply with several strokes of a pen.

Regulations around supersonic flight

At one point, the House Freedom Caucus recommends removing the Federal Aviation Administration ban on supersonic flight overland and replacing it with a “noise standard.” This is less random than it seems.

Ever since 1973, the FAA has banned all civilian aircraft from flying faster than the speed of sound over land, on account of the noisy sonic booms the Concorde jet made when it broke the sound barrier. But in the recent years, both NASA and smaller startups have been developing new supersonic planes that produce much, much softer sonic booms. The idea here is that if the FAA set a simple noise standard — booms could be no louder than 70 perceived decibels on the ground (comparable to a car passing) — that could usher in a new era of much faster air travel. See here for the full backstory.