Just repeating claims on deregulation doesn’t make them true

In President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night he said, “My Administration has cut more regulations in a short time than any other administration during its entire tenure.”

Earlier that day, in testimony in her confirmation hearings for a D.C. Circuit Court Judgeship before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Neomi Rao, echoed the president’s claims about deregulation. She cited the announcement in December 2017 that in the first year of the administration, agencies cut 22 regulations for every new regulation they issued.

President Trump and those in his administration continue to emphasize their deregulatory accomplishments. In doing so, they throw around large numbers of regulations repealed and grandiose claims that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

This is particularly important because Trump supporters ascribe the economic boom (which of course long predates the Trump Administration) to deregulation. But if the deregulation has been limited, its effect on the economy must also be small.

And deregulation has been limited. 

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The claim of deregulation in 2017 has been debunked by numerous scholars. The actions listed for 2017 by the Trump Administration as evidence of deregulation included delays of actions that will likely eventually go into effect, proposals that may never go into effect, and very minor actions. The most significant regulatory rollbacks in 2017 were those performed by Congress using the Congressional Review Act

Last year brought more statements about significant regulatory rollbacks. Late in 2018 the Trump Administration claimed to have repealed 57 regulations that year. But as in 2017, these numbers fall apart when subject to greater scrutiny. Only 21 of these actions were substantive in nature, and most of these were eliminating paperwork in the health care sector. These types of deregulatory activities were also standard in the Obama Administration.

There are several high profile deregulatory efforts underway at the Environmental Protection Agency (including repeals of mileage standards, and the Clean Power Plan) and other agencies. Before one gives the Trump Administration credit for these though, two things must be kept in mind. These efforts will have to withstand judicial scrutiny, something the Trump Administration's regulatory efforts have been uniquely poor at doing. And even getting to the point of implementing successful regulatory repeals will likely take years. 

Where the Trump Administration has accomplished the most in deregulating is through relaxing enforcement of regulations that remain on the books. Recent articles have documented enforcement slowdowns in financial regulation, consumer protection, and environmental regulation

Why doesn’t the Trump Administration tout its relaxed enforcement of regulations rather than making outlandish claims about eliminating regulations? There are likely two reasons. First, while certainly harmful to the environment, workers, and consumers, and helpful to the bottom lines of irresponsible companies, relaxed enforcement can easily be reversed when a new administration comes into office. It is not a lasting change. Second, and more importantly, the administration is understandably reluctant to brag about letting criminal firms get away breaking the law (in contrast they are anxious to strictly enforce the law in other areas such as immigration).

So instead, Trump and his appointees keep returning to the claim they have fundamentally changed the regulatory state. We know that the Trump Administration operates under the principle that if you say something often enough, it will become the truth. But the real truth is that there were tens of thousands of regulations on the books when Trump came into office. And there will be tens of thousands when he leaves.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.