August 7, 2017; New York Times and ProPublica
It seems announcements are made on a daily basis regarding the rescinding of federal regulations, most of which were put in place by the Obama administration. This process is not new. As new leadership assumes office, there has always been an effort to realign existing regulations with the values of the current leadership and its political party. In the case of the Trump administration, however, there is a veil of secrecy around just who are the appointees making these changes. The question being raised here is one of conflicts of interest among these appointees.
As reported by Danielle Ivory of the New York Times and Robert Faturechi of ProPublica, “When President Trump ordered federal agencies to form teams to dismantle government regulations, the Transportation Department turned to people with deep industry ties.” And, while some of the names and backgrounds of these deregulators have been uncovered, requests for a full list of who has been appointed have been declined by some of the federal agencies whose regulations are being rescinded.
What has been uncovered shows that most of these appointees have deep ties to the industry. Looking at the Department of Transportation reveals these connections.
One appointee had previously lobbied the department on behalf of American Airlines. Another held executive roles for several electric and hybrid car companies regulated by the department. A third was a lawyer who represented United Airlines in regulatory matters.
The three appointees have been identified by ProPublica and the New York Times in a continuing effort to track members of the deregulation teams. The appointments, previously unreported, follow a pattern identified by the two news organizations: By and large, the Trump administration has stacked the teams with political appointees, some of whom may be reviewing rules their former employers sought to weaken or kill.
Democratic members of Congress who serve on committees that oversee regulatory matters are expressing concern. They are calling on the administration to release all names to the public.
“It is unacceptable for federal agencies to operate in such a clandestine and unaccountable manner especially when the result could be the undoing of critical public health and safety protections,” Representatives Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, and David Cicilline of Rhode Island wrote in the letter.
The congressmen cited a recent investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times revealing that members of the deregulation teams have included lawyers who represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark money groups and employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules.
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“These Task Forces must have an effective and transparent guard against conflicts of interest, especially those in which industry lobbyists seek to overturn environmental and health protections for financial gain,” wrote the lawmakers, who are the ranking Democrats on the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; Committee on the Judiciary; Subcommittee on Government Operations; and Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law.
“It appears,” the letter continued, “that the current Task Forces are already failing on this front, and instead are actively hiding their members and their meetings from public view.”
At this time, 85 current and former team members are known, 34 of whom have possible conflicts of interest. Appointees include former lobbyists, lawyers, and others with deep ties to the industries they are deregulating. In some cases, the appointee could benefit personally from these changes in regulations elevating the question of conflict of interest.
The Justice Department has released the names of only two appointees currently working on its team. In an email exchange, a spokesman, Ian Prior, said he could not provide additional names because “the Task Force is made up of components, not particular employees.”
“A component may have multiple employees assisting with the work,” he added.
Asked if he could name any of those employees, he responded, “Decline.”
The Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security provided only the titles for most appointees to their review teams, not the names.
As the daily announcements of deregulation continue, the secrecy surrounding who makes these decisions grows. Will the request from Democratic congressmen for names and an open appointment and meeting process have any traction? Will it take continued journalistic sleuthing to uncover more names? Based on what has thus far been revealed, it does seem as though the foxes are guarding the henhouse. And regulations that safeguard those hens are at risk.—Carole Levine