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The Trump administration wants to use the coronavirus pandemic to push for more deregulation

The administration could further relax environmental, labor policy, worker safety, and health care regulations.

President Donald Trump speaks at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on April 20.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s administration is preparing a wide-ranging rollback of business rules and regulations in an attempt to mitigate the shock of the worst economic collapse in a generation, according to a Washington Post report.

Though the specifics have yet to be finalized, two people familiar with the plans told the Post’s Jeff Stein and Robert Costa that the administration is going to focus on small businesses; targeted regulations could include environmental policy, labor policy, workplace safety, and health care. The administration is also reportedly interested in expanding a program that requires federal departments to roll back two regulations every time it introduces a new one.

The economic deregulation fits into a larger pattern from the White House during Trump’s first three years in office, one that’s continued even as the pandemic has gone on. The administration, for instance, eased clean air requirements in early April despite the fact that cleaner air would help Americans better deal with respiratory illnesses like Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The latest deregulatory plans are being worked on by a team of high-level administration officials, who hope to release them by the end of April or early May, per the Post:

The White House National Economic Council and its director, Larry Kudlow, are working closely on the plan with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other officials at the Treasury Department. The Council of Economic Advisers and incoming White House chief of staff Mark Meadows are also involved, as is White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Office of Management and Budget acting director Russell Vought.

More than 22 million people in the US have filed initial claims for unemployment over the last three weeks, triggering the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression. White House officials claim that undoing government regulations for small businesses will help encourage investment in a down market.

Several conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, recently released plans for the administration to pursue deregulation. Among the Heritage plans the White House found intriguing was a call for the president to ask agencies not to enforce small business regulations altogether.

“A presidential call for a wide-scale policy of non-enforcement would send a very strong signal to businesses that the government is not going to come down hard on them as they try to get back up and running,” the Heritage plan said.

Left-leaning policy experts disagree.

“This sounds exactly like the type of opportunistic political move that absolutely should not be attempted right now,” Jared Bernstein, a former adviser to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, told the Post. “Correlations between regulations and economic activity are far shakier than they assume, and I don’t believe this idea will help at all.”

The White House hopes to marry the deregulatory plan with a payroll tax cut — another of Trump’s long-desired financial policy goals, but one that would need congressional approval in the next round of stimulus bills.

Trump’s deregulation agenda has flourished in the coronavirus economic crisis

This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has used the economic collapse caused by Covid-19 to push back regulations across multiple government agencies. Much of the effort thus far has focused on easing environmental regulations, which has been a priority throughout most of Trump’s first term.

In early April, the administration finalized its rollback of Obama-era requirements for vehicle fuel efficiency. And on March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive saying it would “not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.”

The move allows air polluters to flout federal law without fear of penalty, right when clean air is perhaps most important for the health and safety of everyday Americans.

Respiratory illnesses like Covid-19 are exacerbated by air pollution, as explained by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias:

Danielle Braun, Francesca Dominici, Rachel Nethery, Ben Sabath, and Xiao Wu used a pretty standard research design looking at long-term air pollution levels as recorded in about 3,000 American counties that cover approximately 98 percent of the population.

They then looked at county-level Covid-19 deaths, adjusting for hospital beds available, smoking and obesity rates, and standard demographic factors. All else being equal, they found that an increase of one microgram of fine particulates per cubic meter is associated with a 15 percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. That’s about 20 times the statistical association between fine particulate exposure and increases in the normal all-cause mortality rate, reflecting the commonsense view that coming down with Covid-19 greatly elevates the importance of your baseline respiratory and cardiovascular health.

It is well known among people who study air pollution that African American neighborhoods are much more likely to have high levels of contamination — the result of a multifaceted historical process. The link between air pollution and Covid-19 fatality could be a partial explanation for why African Americans seem to be dying at a disproportionate rate. It could also partially explain why things got so bad in Italy, which has about double the concentration of air pollution in the United States.

In policy terms, we cannot cope with the pandemic by going back in time to reduce background levels of air pollution. But we can use the data to spot and help the most vulnerable.