By Matt Kent
Just before Labor Day weekend, Acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella made clear that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) planned on accelerating its efforts to strip away key worker protections. In remarks at the DOL Labor Day celebration, Pizzella promised to “focus like a laser beam” on President Donald Trump’s deregulatory agenda as the agency awaits the confirmation of Eugene Scalia as Secretary of Labor.
It’s unclear whether Pizzella appreciates the irony of announcing an intensified war on worker protections during a celebration of the rights and dignity of working people. What’s clear is DOL’s amped up deregulation is a departure from the agency’s more cautious, but still harmful, Acosta-era regulatory approach. The new direction will raise more doubts about the efficacy of the Trump administration’s regulatory review processes, especially the facade of objective analysis performed by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
Pizzella helms DOL at a time when Trump officials are pushing hard for more political wins in the deregulatory space. Anti-regulatory crusaders at the White House, namely the jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) Mick Mulvaney, were unhappy with former Labor Secretary Acosta’s deliberate deregulatory approach. Never mind the fact that Trump’s rushed deregulatory actions have been getting crushed by reviewing courts.
No doubt aware of that dynamic, Pizzella reported that DOL has recently sent several deregulatory actions to OIRA, which is the last stop for regulations before they are officially published. These include: drug testing for unemployed workers, reduced retirement plan disclosures and loosened protections from harmful beryllium. OIRA recently cleared a DOL proposal to examine weakened silica dust protection for miners. A proposal to give employers more power over workers’ tips is also awaiting review.
The current, although in many ways flawed, regulatory review process is premised on the idea that OIRA serves as a protector of regulatory integrity – a clearinghouse where agency economic and legal assumptions are double-checked by objective measures. Yet OIRA has made clear that it has no say in Trump’s plan to deregulate for the sake of it, regardless of the policy implications or even protests from industry.
Trump’s OIRA has approved regulations that ignore basic tenets of cost-benefit analysis, especially with respect to ignoring the benefits of a clean environment. The office green-lights wild rule justifications like a vehicle emissions standards rollback claiming more efficient fuel standards would increase accident fatalities because people would drive more.
OIRA’s fast-tracking of DOL anti-worker deregulation exposes the myth that OIRA is just a neutral technocratic office, by instead making clear that it has a systematic deregulatory bent. Under President Barack Obama, OIRA routinely second-guessed worker protections that DOL was trying to put in place, most notably the rule protecting workers from the known carcinogen silica dust. That rule was stuck at OIRA for almost two and a half years, which is the longest any rule has ever been reviewed by OIRA. In fact, under Obama, OIRA did the exact opposite of the deregulatory fast-tracking it is doing now, by slow-walking its review of much-needed health, safety, and environmental protections in unprecedented fashion.
If there’s any serious thought that OIRA still has a role as a sane evaluator of regulations, DOL’s deregulatory blitz should do away with those illusions. OIRA probably will approve DOL’s proposals that count cost savings to corporations as societal benefits and ignore actual benefits to workers and their families. In doing so OIRA is making the case for its own uselessness. Strangely, the incompetence and cruelty of Trump’s regulatory moves are exposing the decades-old shortcomings of the OIRA review process. Unfortunately, that is cold comfort to the workers and millions of Americans who will suffer under Trump’s deregulatory agenda.