We are now midway through the Trump administration, and the state of our union—while far too fractured and polarized to be judged strong—has, at least, proven resilient. The key institutions we count on—a free media, an independent judiciary, vigorous NGOs, strong governors and state attorneys general, and opposition representatives in Congress—have, for the most part, held the line and stemmed the damage that might have been inflicted by the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency.
At the same time as our “old guard” institutions have held the line, a “new guard” is moving the line and changing the terms of the debate. People-powered activism is surging nationwide, and groups such as Indivisible, the Parkland students, and the Sunrise Movement captivate our imagination and demand attention with stirring ideas such as the “Green New Deal.”
Even the recent shutdown over the border wall, while a stunning example of government dysfunction that caused needless suffering, may have set a helpful precedent. How so? The border wall started out as a mnemonic device for a fledgling presidential candidate and became a symbol of toughness on immigration to Mr. Trump’s base. What it never was shown to be was an effective solution for border security. And when a policy, particularly one that involves billions of taxpayer dollars, cannot be supported by the evidence, and when there is an opposition party that will not suspend its disbelief out of blind loyalty to the president, such a policy will usually fail. That is the primary lesson of the shutdown, and one that President Trump’s administration would do well to learn if he wishes to salvage a failing presidency.
So, the question for UCS is this: How do we intend to operate in this landscape for the next two years?
Remain vigilant, but focus less on legislative defense
Two years ago, many of us reasonably feared that the president and his allies in Congress would enact what I have often referred to as “scorched earth” laws that would weaken key environmental safeguards, and restrict the ability of government scientists to do their vital work. Many of these bills had been passed by Congress but vetoed by President Obama, and we reasonably feared that they would be passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.
Fortunately, for the most part this did not happen due to Senate Democrats working together to block noxious legislation. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort, supported by the work of many, including UCS, and it produced good results. Now, with a new majority in the House of Representatives that seems guided by science and motivated by constituencies who value clean air and water, it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will pass. For UCS, this means that some of the resources devoted to legislative defense can be deployed for other purposes.
Counter executive action
However, because Mr. Trump’s agenda will be stymied in Congress, it is also likely that he will double down on executive action.
Perhaps the most dangerous of these gambits lie in foreign policy, an area presidents often turn to when their domestic agendas are blocked. President Trump has already inflicted damage on our standing in the world and relationships with allies by seeking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now he has announced the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with the potential risk of unraveling other arms accords, such as the New Start Treaty which expires in 2021 unless extended. There is no obvious way to counter these actions, at least in the short term, but we and others can and will challenge these actions.
On the domestic front, we will continue to see the president attempt to impose his will even when he cannot get Congress behind it. An example is the recently-announced effort to impose punitive work requirements on recipients of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) after Congress chose not to include these requirements when it passed the farm bill in late 2018. As UCS experts have noted, the Department of Agriculture is now charging forward with a proposal that makes it harder for states (that have high unemployment rates and other barriers) to waive work requirements, thereby disqualifying many hungry Americans from accessing food through the program.
On top of new efforts such as cutting SNAP eligibility, the Trump administration will scurry to complete final rules eviscerating climate change policies. His administration will keep forcing rollbacks of proactive climate policies such as fuel economy standards and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, threatening public health by changing the formula for conducting cost-benefit analyses, stacking federal advisory boards with industry representatives, and limiting how scientific evidence can be used by federal agencies. These may be the only remaining “wins” Mr. Trump will be able to secure, and they are highlighted well in this recent UCS report.
UCS, and others, have fought hard against these rollbacks, soliciting thousands of comments of concern on these regulations before they’re finalized. What will most effectively derail the deregulation train? The nation’s courts. Courts are fact-based forums: when an administration makes spurious claims, they can expect skepticism from federal courts, particularly because the administrative record, as added to by UCS and others, contains the grounds to tear such arguments apart.
Take advantage of new oversight opportunities
In addition to litigation, we now have a new tool in countering excesses—Congressional oversight. Our elected officials can—and should—expose malfeasance and cronyism, rouse public opinion, and block misguided executive branch initiatives.
The challenge is that there is much material to work with—the US House committees that conduct any review of the Trump administration’s actions since taking office will need to be judicious. While there will be many competing demands, part of the new Congress’s agenda must be devoted to investigating regulatory rollbacks. We will be prepared to assist Congress in the legwork that goes into making oversight effective.
Examples of Congressional oversight that could be particularly illuminating include investigating:
- The nefarious role that oil companies may have played in convincing the Trump administration to weaken fuel economy standards further than even the car companies wished;
- The EPA’s decision to jerry-rig its cost-benefit analysis to minimize the benefits of regulations that Trump campaign contributors such as Murray Energy oppose;
- The true facts about whether proposed missile defense systems actually work in real-world testing.
Perfect our science-based policies and build a coalition to support them
The next two years also give us time to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. In part, we can start this by pushing for relatively modest measures that have bipartisan support now. Examples include funding increases for clean energy R&D, extensions of popular tax incentives for wind and solar energy, and broadening current incentives for deploying more energy storage and electric vehicles. And, if there’s a national infrastructure bill, UCS will push for “green” components, such as transmission lines that connect renewable energy to population centers and building EV charging stations.
But more importantly, we can use these next two years to draw up “rough drafts” of more ambitious legislation to solve our greatest challenges. Lawmakers can get feedback from stakeholders, for example, and continue to build public support for science-based policies so that when change happens again in Washington, we as a nation are ready to act decisively on climate change.
In addition to climate legislation, we should also lay the groundwork for ambitious action on nuclear weapons, including a bill to prohibit the US from launching a first use of nuclear weapons and/or restrict the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. We’ll be ready to inject these ideas into the next presidential debates, and educate a new cadre of legislators, as well as mobilize the public around them. We should also anticipate opportunities around—and lay the groundwork for—bills to protect scientific integrity and restore hollowed-out federal agencies.
Drive change at the state level
The polarized and dysfunctional state of the federal government likely won’t get better without a new election. But at the state level, there are abundant opportunities to make progress now. On the West Coast, all three governors and their legislatures can continue to show leadership on climate change—and California must begin the hard work of implementing the goals it set under Governor Brown. States like New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have new governors who recognized the value of clean energy in their campaigns, and these states are poised to adopt ambitious climate goals, aided by ample and inexpensive supplies of renewable energy. And on the East Coast, nine states and Washington, DC, just pledged to create a “cap and invest” program to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions. These local governments can make good on their pledge in 2019 and transition their states to clean transportation.
So, at this two-year mark, we have a weakened president, a resurgent House of Representatives, new governors committed to state-level progress, and an engaged and mobilized public. So, while I cannot call our state of the union strong at this moment, I see clear signs that in less time than I might have anticipated two years ago, our state of the union will be strong again.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.