An Obscure Law Unravels Obama’s Legacy, One Rule at a Time

In Governing and the Cabinet, New York Times Editorial On
- Updated

WASHINGTON — Just days after the November election, top aides to Donald J. Trump huddled with congressional staff members in Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s suite of offices at the Capitol. The objective: not to get things done, but to undo them — quickly.

For about three months after Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump would have the power to wipe away some of his predecessor’s most significant regulations with simple-majority votes from his allies in Congress.

But the clock was ticking.

An obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to overturn major new regulations issued by federal agencies. After that window closes, sometime in early May, the process gets much more difficult: Executive orders by the president can take years to unwind regulations — well beyond the important 100-day yardstick for new administrations.

So in weekly meetings leading up to Jan. 20, the Trump aides and lawmakers worked from a shared Excel spreadsheet to develop a list of possible targets: rules enacted late in Barack Obama’s presidency that they viewed as a vast regulatory overreach that was stifling economic growth.

The result was a historic reversal of government rules in record time. Mr. Trump has used the review act as a regulatory wrecking ball, signing 13 bills that erased rules on the environment, labor, financial protections, internet privacy, abortion, education and gun rights. In the law’s 21-year history, it had been used successfully only once before, when President George W. Bush reversed a Clinton-era ergonomics rule.

The effort has surpassed its architects’ most ambitious hopes. Andrew Bremberg, the president’s domestic policy chief, said he had thought Congress might be able to use the act to pass five or six bills reversing Mr. Obama’s regulations. During the transition effort, no one contemplated more than a dozen, Mr. Bremberg said.

“It is a strong and very potent and powerful tool,” he said.

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Two Last Rules Worth Saving From the G.O.P.

There’s only about a week to go before time runs out on fast-track procedures that congressional Republicans have been using to repeal regulations finalized in the last months of the Obama administration. But still more damage could be in store.

So far, President Trump has signed 13 repeal measures passed by Congress, harming worker safety, environmental protection and consumer privacy. To put that number into perspective, before now, Congress had revoked only one rule using the fast-track process — in 2001.

Now the fates of two important protections remain threatened as the Senate decides whether to follow the lead of the House and vote to repeal them.

One of them allows states to establish payroll-deduction retirement accounts for private-sector workers who have no retirement coverage at work.

Another makes energy companies limit harmful emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas.

The retirement regulation, which allows states to provide millions of employees with a convenient, low-cost way to save for retirement, is also consistent with Republicans’ traditional support for states’ rights. So, repealing the rule would violate both the interest of the people and Republicans’ own professed ideology — in order to curry favor with big financial firms that fear competition.

The vote to repeal the retirement rule, which could come as soon as Wednesday, will be close, with Vice President Mike Pence possibly having to cast a tiebreaking vote — a dubious victory.

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