Policy Studies Conservation

The limits of executive orders in environmental deregulation

The attached policy short was co-authored by R Street Associate Fellow Catrina Rorke. 

President Donald Trump has placed a strong emphasis on overhauling the sprawling regulatory state. Both he and many of his administration’s officials have declared that efforts to roll back regulation and reduce federal agency budgets will bring the bureaucratic machine in line with a vision of smaller government and unbridled economic growth. Accordingly, one of his first actions after taking office was to sign Executive Order 13771, or the “one in, two out” proposal for new regulations.

As new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt put it:

Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulations exist to give certainty to those that they regulate. Those that we regulate ought to know what we expect of them, so they can plan and allocate resources to comply. That’s really the job of the regulator.

Indeed, in terms of the new administration’s efforts in this regard, few policy areas have seen more aggressive focus on deregulation than the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. This composite suite of regulations, executive orders, private-sector partnerships, grant programs, research investments and other commitments across government was a sweeping effort to cut greenhouse emissions from all corners of the economy, increase the share of renew-able energy and promote efficiency. However, its narrow pursuit of a low-carbon future was predicated on sometimes-questionable legal foundations and required large sums of resources, which made it hugely controversial.

In view of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Trump White House set the Climate Action Plan in its crosshairs. Today, the bulk of those programs have been largely blotted out. As one supporter of these efforts described it, “conservatives and libertarians have already achieved fiscal and regulatory victories that they were told would be impossible.”

However, such an approach has its limits. While this administration can certainly roll back and revoke programs and regulations, any action by this president remains vulnerable to the particular politics of future ones. As R Street has previously argued, “sole reliance on executive orders is unlikely to produce lasting deregulatory change.” This is especially true with respect to rewriting regulatory authority and approach-es to greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, Congress must do its job to hit the reset button.

Image by Mega Pixel


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